When you hear the word 'balloon', what image comes to mind?
Probably party balloons – maybe the kind you blow up yourself, or maybe a bunch of pretty helium balloons dotting the ceiling of your celebration.
1.Did you know that most people have only been using helium for party balloons for about 50 years?
Before the mid-1960s, helium balloons were only for the rich and famous or the politically connected. Helium wasn’t available for commercial sale to the public until 1965. Prior to that, the production and distribution of helium was mostly controlled by the U.S. government, which used it to hoist weather and military observation balloons. But legislative changes in the early 1960s ushered in changes that led, ultimately, to the myriad party balloons we know today.
2. Helium is used for other kinds of balloons too, including the large, colorful creatures that come to life every Thanksgiving Day as America celebrates our nation’s history.
Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons soar across the sky in cities from New York, to Philadelphia to Detroit, using helium to elevate our favorite characters. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City, for example, uses about 300,000 standard cubic feet of helium – enough to fill 500,000 Mylar party balloons – to keep its balloons standing tall for children of all ages to see. (Download the infographic on how helium is transported for the Parade)
3. You may already know some balloons help meteorologists forecast the weather, but exactly how do they do that?
The U.S. Weather Service launches balloons each day from over 100 sites throughout the U.S., Caribbean and Pacific. These weather balloons also use gases such as helium or hydrogen, which is less costly and just as safe, to get them up, up and away into the stratosphere – about 20 miles up, way above the clouds and air traffic. Once there, the equipment – known as a radiosonde -- suspended below the balloons, sends down radio signals to a receiver, giving us information about wind speeds, temperature, air pressure and humidity, which meteorologists use to predict weather and track changes in climate.
4. And meet the latest use for balloons, lifted by helium or hydrogen: Internet balloons, aimed at bringing people in the most remote locations in the world online, have been flying regularly since 2013 in a project spearheaded by internet giant Google.
Project Loon also sends balloons into the stratosphere, carrying a payload of high powered communications equipment, sending down Internet coverage to areas that have no access, due to lack of on-the-ground infrastructure, especially in very poor or geographically isolated areas. Like weather balloons, these also expand greatly when they reach the stratosphere due to reduced atmospheric pressure, but they are significantly larger – when fully expanded they are roughly twice as large as weather balloons.