WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Triangle group launches homemade experiment into the stratosphere

Posted June 18, 2012

NC Near Space Research launched an experimental weather balloon Saturday from the Kerr Scott building at the State Fairgrounds as a part of NC Maker Faire 2012.

NC Near Space Research Journey of near-space balloon

Each launch costs the group about $150 to $200, including the balloon, helium, and lithium batteries needed to power the electronics in the cold of the stratosphere. The group has invested another $700 in cameras and other electronics that can be recovered and reused mission-to-mission.

These are the same weather balloons that NOAA's National Weather Service launches from over 100 sites throughout the U.S. and its territories each day. Maker Faire Creativity flourishes at Maker Faire Those balloons provide valuable data used to build the weather models that the WRAL Weather Center team uses. NOAA doesn't track where those payloads come down as closely NC Near Space Research does, though, and only gets about 20 percent of those payloads back as a result.

The 6-foot helium weather balloon lifted the NC Near Space Research's 1.5-pound payload up over 85,000 feet in altitude. A sealable plastic container, like one you might have in your kitchen right now, held a GPS, video and still cameras, and a transmitter which broadcast its position via ham radio throughout the two-hour flight to help ensure recovery. Ground stations as far away as Atlanta and Knoxville reported hearing the signal.

The group of space and weather enthusiasts also added some small experiments to the payload. A small bottle of water and a slightly inflated party balloon were monitored by an on-board camera with a Lego mini-figure overseeing it all. The water began showing signs of freezing 26 minutes into the flight as it approached 35,000 feet (higher than Mount Everest), and the party balloon expanded as the balloon rose through the increasingly thin air.

NC Near Space Research Timelapse: Experiments on space balloon

The balloon and its payload traveled south toward North Carolina's Sandhills immediately after launch. As it rose through 60,000 feet north of Fayetteville, winds pushed the balloon west where it sailed between Womack Army Medical Center and Pope Air Force Base at over 75,000 feet.

NC Near Space Research team member Rodney Radford noted, "This is the fist time we have had a flight go southwest. The six previous flights all went northeast."

"This is an unmanned balloon. Once released, we have no control over where it flew," Radford added.

Several minutes later the weather balloon, now 16 to 18 feet in size, burst over Fort Bragg. The payload quickly lost altitude as the parachute helped little in the thin stratosphere. As it descended into the troposphere around 50,000 feet, the parachute filled, and it all turned south where the experiment landed a few minutes later in a tree three miles southeast of Raeford, thankfully well out of Ft. Bragg.

In the end, the balloon traveled 16.5 miles up and along a path 86.5 miles long over about two hours. Team member Tanner Lovelace reported that when he retrieved the payload, the water in the experiment bottle was still frozen, and the party balloon was still intact. Only the first hour of the flight was available on the cameras, but team members plan to troubleshoot and try again during the next flight.


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  • Tony Rice Jun 18, 2012

    cushioncritter, NOAA's weather balloon payloads (called radiosonde) are designed to be expendable to keep costs down. Adding a GPS to enable the kind of tracking that these hobbyists are capable of would double the cost of these radiosondes. But the big cost would be sufficient staff to chase them down.

    While many of these instruments end up in uninhabited areas, the bigger question is why those that are found aren't returned to NOAA for refurbishment. They make really boring souvenirs. Everything you need including a bag and a postage-paid mailing label is included.

    If you find a radiosonde, show it to the neighborhood kids, pose with it for Facebook photo and then give it to your letter carrier. They'll get it to Kansas City for refurbishment and save us all a few tax dollars.

    More info is available here: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/ops2/ua/radioson

  • cushioncritter Jun 18, 2012

    Just to clarify why recent "weather/environmental" readings are nice:

    An asthmatic person who jogs in the afternoon at 95F (in a few days!) is probably breathing "cooked" RTP commuter exhaust. Previously, NCDENR only had "3 hour old" data that showed the air was safe and that "on average" it was no problem for the asthmatic who stayed inside in air conditioning over the most recent 18 hours.

    However, at 7pm one could find out that the 4pm "distance running" was not very smart, even for "healthy" individuals.

    Interesting when a kid dies in football training we always find out they "had a congenital heart defect", and never "the ozone level at 4pm when the child died was 100, with a level of 75 is a problem for asthmatic people".

    As for temperatures being read more than once per hour, how about in the morning when you go outside and know it is hot yet the hour-old RDU "official" reading is 69F?

  • cushioncritter Jun 18, 2012

    Interesting that NOAA is not careful trying to recover its payloads (Bernake can just print/borrow more money from China/Japan).

    NCDENR was complaining mightily about recent GOP-legislature budget cuts but now can post Ozone levels with a one hour delay whereas pre-budget cut it was a three hour delay. So the budget cuts apparently caused automation of reading the ozone meters instead of having a state employee drive around and leisurely read the meters.

    Its just fascinating that when we cut the budgets of state/federal agencies that things actually get better. I'm sorry for the person driving around to read the meters nice job but that is so 17th century.

    Now to return to the topic at hand, do you think "official" temperatures (such as measured at the RDU airport) could be updated more frequently than once per hour? I guess some employee has to rise from their chair and read a thermometer, I guess we can't do any better than once per hour.