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What does a giant helium balloon have to do with the hunt for sub-atomic particles? The suspected electrons are trapped, really, really high up.

The bizarre, invisible static rain

It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but researchers believe that there are waves of electrons in the Earth’s magnetic field that suddenly rain down to the ground.

When that happens, the electrons actually damage our electronics, breaking satellites and forcing computers to execute commands that they never were supposed to do. In an ironic twist, it is suspected that it’s the Earth’s own radio waves that are causing these electrons to rain back down on us.

All this is according to lead researcher Chris Cully, as told to the hosts of The Afternoon Edition on CBC Radio.

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So how do we put this theory to the test? A giant helium balloon.

That’s one giant helium balloon

Researchers from the Universities of Calgary, Alberta, and Washington, plus Scientific Instrument Limited, have launched a massive, 100-foot helium balloon loaded with instruments.

The giant helium balloon will use X-rays and radio waves to hunt for sub-atomic particles trapped high up in the Earth’s magnetic field.

With all of our technology, the good old-fashioned balloon is still the most effective and safe method for lifting all of the necessary equipment to such high altitudes, and be able to sustain at that height for the duration needed to collect sufficient data.

The giant helium balloon will float at around 115,000 feet, more than three times the altitude that most commercial airplanes fly.


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Sources: The Afternoon Edition, University of Calgary High Altitude Balloons, CBC