Alphabet's Loon balloons are helping scientists study gravity waves

The research could lead to better models for predicting the weather.

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Visitors stand next to a high altitude WiFi internet hub, a Google Project Loon balloon, on display at the Airforce Museum in Christchurch on June 16, 2013. Google revealed top-secret plans on June 15 to send balloons to the edge of space with the lofty aim of bringing Internet to the two-thirds of the global population currently without web access.     AFP PHOTO / MARTY MELVILLE        (Photo credit should read Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)
MARTY MELVILLE via Getty Images

In between beaming internet to people in developing countries and sometimes passing for UFOs, Alphabet's Loon balloons have been busy helping scientists study how our planet works. A team led by Stanford professor Aditi Sheshadri recently published a report on gravity waves, ripples created by gravity when it pushes down on air forced up into the Earth's upper atmosphere. 

To compile their report, professor Sheshadri and her team used data that Alphabet's Loon balloons collected over 6,811 separate 48-hour periods between 2014 and 2018. "This was just a very lucky thing because they weren't collecting data for any scientific mission. But, incidentally, they happened to be measuring position and temperature and pressure," the researcher told Stanford News

To put the amount of data they had at their disposal in perspective, similar studies in the past that used atmospheric balloons to track high-frequency waves incorporated information from dozens of balloons. They were also only able to collect that data over a couple of seasons in a few select regions. The process of analyzing the Loon data was messy, but the team at Stanford had data from across the world. 

While they're not as well known as gravitational waves, gravity waves can have just as much impact on how we experience the world. In the air, they can cause turbulence for aircraft and affect how storms develop. A better understanding of them could be the key to creating more accurate models for predicting the weather, particularly as climate change intensifies. 

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