Chance Happenings and Impromptu Education
Wednesday night, on his way home from work, my husband saw a strange something fall from the sky and crash into a phone line. A little concerned, he pulled over and went back to investigate. He thought it looked like a hot air balloon, but it was far too small and far too late at night. Had it just been the basket? A balloon trip gone very bad? Was he going to find bodies? Twisted in the phone line, he indeed found a balloon, but one of a different sort. A weather balloon. A toss of a tow rope dislodged it and he was able to retrieve it. It hadn't released all of its little cartridges, and exploded in the back of the car. Luckily, nothing was damaged.

At 2AM a very excited husband arrives home and coaxes me out into the tail end of a thunderstorm to oggle his prize. In the morning, he took the kids out to dismantle it. They tried to identify the parts while my husband tried his best to explain what a weather balloon is for and how it works. We searched for any identifying information. We thought maybe it had been released by the University of Nebraska due to the many storms in the area, but didn't get high enough before being blown our way. Finally, we found a name and a company. An internet search revealed an old photagraph of several researchers, one of which was the man named on our balloon. We also found an old email address.

Saturday morning, a very excited researcher calls my husband wanting to know more. He sends a team out from Boulder, CO to retrieve our little weather balloon. Unfortunately, the kids and I are out of state, but my husband is home to meet them. The team is excited. The balloon had been released in Laramie, Wyoming and circled Colorado before they lost contact with it. It had achieved a height of 60,000 feet. Two pilots reported it over Kearney, NE. Most interesting, this little guy is part of a team of balloons slated to be released over the Sahara in a couple of weeks. He's supposed to drift over the ocean, collecting data to help with hurricane prediction! There are some problems with the balloons, however, and the team is frantically trying to figure out what is wrong with them. From a cursory inspection of ours, they find a couple of things and are looking forward to returning to the lab to finish the inspection and correct the issues.

They gave my husband a hat and a t-shirt which he is most excited about. They also are sending a check for retrieving and reporting it and invitations to visit their facilities out in Colorado. While everyone else gets to go to the observation desk, we get a behind-the-scenes tour of a working weather laboratory!

One thing I cannot help but wonder...if they are so excited to have been able to retrieve this thing, why wasn't it easier to find out how to return it? It seems it would be easy enough to stamp somewhere on it who to call if found. A simple toll-free number to the lab would do nicely.

For some nice information on weather balloons, here is a nice link from NOAA. This is not what our weather balloon looked like. Ours looked like it was homemade. It was a large cardboard box with a thin plastic balloon and a nice parachute. Inside the box was a GPS unit and several battery packs with some other electronics all packed between thin styrofoam sheets and foil. The top had another box with spaces for little things that looked like fireworks. We're assuming these were to be released in the atmosphere to take measurements (that is what exploded in the car).

If you have any enterprising young explorers, this looks like a fascinating project. Note this person lives in Australia, so you would have to find out about laws in the US and in your state. He sent up a balloon to take high-altitude photographs. How cool is that?

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