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The Bird and The Balloon Telescope

"The Bird and The Balloon Telescope" artwork. Cartoon of hawk and a balloon.


NGSS Standards:


What happens when a baby falcon meets a balloon telescope in an old Wild West town? An astrophysics animal adventure, of course! Erika Hamden is an astrophysicist who’s attempting to launch a space balloon telescope called FIREBall, an experiment to study distant galaxies. But her mission to the stratosphere leads her to wild nature, when a baby falcon falls out of its nest and onto the telescope. It turns out, launches don't always go as planned.


"I love building telescopes," Erika told us. But her job is a lot more than building telescopes. She is the leader of a big team, and she's also an excellent science communicator. Here are a few talks she has given about her experience with FIREBall.

Oh yeah, Erika was a TED Fellow! And she has very cool glasses and suits.

Here she talks more about why FIREBall is built to detect hydrogen.

And for those of you who prefer audio (isn't that why you're here?!), Story Collider, which is The Moth for science, did an episode with her.


"Flappy" as seen in his baseball cap when first rescued by the French guys:

Small bird in a hat

He was identified as an American kestrel! So cute!


Space balloon next to the moon in the sky.

Isn't this an amazing photo? That tear-drop shaped balloon is FIREBall. Due to the hole, it is not fully inflated.

Curious about "the balloon people?" Here's a NASA documentary on their work.

A shorter NASA video:

BTW, space balloons were also used to make the longest freefall in history happen! In 2012, Felix Baumgartner set a record by "falling to Earth" from a capsule beneath a balloon in the stratosphere. IT'S INSANE:

See it from Felix's POV:

For more background on space balloons, read about Project Stargazer.


Sure, it takes a lot of professionally trained balloon scientists to launch a balloon into space! But if you're inspired by balloons now, it's so easy to play around with their amazing qualities at home. There's a lot of cool sciencey balloon tricks you can do with regular balloons and materials you might already have. See this video for a few examples.


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