The Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology

Scientific Ballooning

Background | Team Members | Experimental Studies | References | Collaborators | Funding

             First balloon launched by USM team from Pittsfield, ME


The extreme conditions in Earth's upper atmosphere include temperatures as low as -60C, low air pressure, and increased UV and cosmic radiation. Cosmic rays are a particularly powerful form of ionizing radiation that is of considerable concern for biological systems and is the main source of ionizing radiation above 3,280 feet. Cosmic radiation exposure increases with altitude and thus relates directly to a potential exposure hazard for pilots in the high atmosphere and astronauts.The Wise Lab is interested in determining the possible toxic effects of the extreme conditions in Earth's upper atmosphere on human cells and DNA. To investigate this aim, human cell culture experiments are attached to a helium balloon and launched into the atmosphere to be later analyzed for cellular damage. 

This research offers students a unique interdisciplinary opportunity as they engage in biological and mechanical experimental design and collaborate with students and scientists from various schools in Maine and around the country.

Team Members

John Wise Sr.    Christy Gianios    Sandra Wise    Ryan Duffy

  John Wise Sr.          Christy Gianios          Sandra Wise                Ryan Duffy

Matthew Braun    James Wise    John Wise Jr.    Cathy Wise

   Matthew Braun          James Wise              John Wise Jr.             Cathy Wise


Experimental Studies

Human cell culture experiments are prepared in the Wise Lab prior to the balloon launch day. The cells are exposed to chromate on launch day and the cell culture vessels are loaded at the launch site into a styrofoam payload vessel constructed and designed by the students. 

The payload contains a heating system for the cell cultures and devices to record environmental data such as temperature, pressure, and radiation. The balloon is then filled with helium and flown to an altitude of approximately 90,000 feet. Once the balloon reaches the proper altitude, a signal is sent to an apparatus that cuts the balloon free and activates the parachute.

Students filling the balloon with helium

The release of the balloon can also be accomplished by simply letting the balloon travel to an altitude that ruptures the balloon; acting as a back-up balloon release system. The cutting system is an example of mechanical design that the students produce. What follows the balloon release is possibly the most challenging portion of flight day.

Team members crossing a stream to recover the payloadOnce the parachute is activated, the team uses a GPS beacon and computer to "chase" the balloon as it plummets through the atmosphere at a descent rate of 17-20 feet per second. As the balloon descends it can land virtually anywhere. This was apparent during the first flight as the team had to hike 7 miles through a nature reserve in Northern Maine and blaze a trail through a dense forest and marsh in order to recover the payload.

Once the payload has been recovered, the team hurrys back to the Wise Lab in Portland where they begin to analyze the cell culture experiments that were flown in the balloon. The data is then analyzed to determine if the extreme conditions in Earth's upper atmosphere are capable of exacerbating chromate induced cellular damage and if the environmental conditions alone can induce a toxic effect.

                   Balloon team after a 7 mile payload recovery hike

                 Balloon teams from USM and UMO after a 7 mile payload recovery hike


Below is video footage captured by a camera attached to the first USM/UMO payload launch

See video



1. Poje, M., et al., (2008) Relation between galactic and solar cosmic radiation at aviation altitude. Advances in Space Research, 42, 1913-1916

2. Harada, K., et al., (1998) Lethality of high linear energy transfer cosmic radiation to Escherichia coli DNA repair-deficient mutants during the `SL-J/FMPT' space experiment. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 164 (1), 39-45


This project is a collaborative effort between the Wise Lab at USM, UMaine Orono, Maine Maritime Academy, LSU, and NASA.


This research is funded by NASA through the Maine Space Grant Consortium