A gas balloon is any balloon that stays aloft due to being filled with a gas less dense than air or lighter than air (such as helium or hydrogen). A gas balloon may also be called a Charlière for its inventor, the Frenchman Jacques Charles. Today, familiar gas balloons include large blimps and small rubber party balloons. Blimps have displaced zeppelins (which are not balloons) as the dominant form of airship.
The first gas balloon made its flight in August 1783. It carried no passengers or cargo, and popped when it reached too high an altitude. Later that same year, (1 December 1783) a manned flight was made shortly after the first ascension in a hot air balloon (and indeed the first recorded ascension by man in any flying device).
Gas balloons remained popular throughout the age before powered flight. They could fly higher and further than hot-air balloons, but were more dangerous as they were usually filled with hydrogen gas (which, unlike helium, could be easily mass-manufactured). Gas balloons were used in the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars (to very limited extent), and throughout the 19th century by hobbyists and show performers such as the Blanchards.
Curiously, after flying to an altitude of over 3000 m on his first flight, Professor Charles never flew again.
The altitude record for an unmanned balloon is 53.0 kilometres. It was reached by a Fujikura balloon with a volume of 60 thousand cubic metres, launched in May 2002 from Sanriku, Iwate, Japan. This is the greatest height ever obtained by an atmospheric vehicle. Only rockets, rocket planes, and ballistic projectiles have flown higher.
On other planets
The Russian space probes Vega 1 and Vega 2 each dropped a helium balloon with scientific experiments into the atmosphere of Venus in 1985. The balloons first entered the atmosphere and descended to about 50 km, then inflated for level flight. Otherwise the flight was uncontrolled. Each balloon relayed wind and atmospheric conditions for 46 hours of a possible 60-hour electric battery power budget.
Published in July 2009.
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