Over the weekend, a local resident of Hastings, Michigan found an orange parachute with a box attached to it in his yard. After analyzing the box, it was discovered that it was a weather balloon with a radiosonde attached. However, it wasn’t the find that was interesting, but where the balloon came from.
The instruments attached to a balloon with a parachute were launched from the Quad Cities National Weather Service Office, located in Davenport Iowa, which is over 300 miles away. What is even more shocking is that the weather balloon made the trip to Hastings in just four hours.
The National Weather Service Office in Grand Rapids, Michigan said the upper level winds over the weekend reached 150-mph, which accounts for the instruments reaching Hastings in that short of time. The Quad Cities office sends up the instruments twice daily.
What is a Radiosonde?
The radiosonde is a small, expendable instrument package that is suspended below balloon filled with either hydrogen or helium. As the radiosonde rises, sensors on the radiosonde measure values of pressure, temperature, and relative humidity.
These sensors are linked to a battery powered radio transmitter that sends the sensor measurements to a ground receiver. By tracking the position of the radiosonde in flight via GPS (global positioning system), information on wind speed and direction aloft is also obtained.
How Long is a Balloon Flight?
The radiosonde flight can last in excess of two hours, and during this time the radiosonde can ascend to over 115,000 feet (35,000 m) and drift more than 125 miles (200 km) from the release point. During the flight, the radiosonde is exposed to temperatures as cold as -130°F (-92°C) and air pressure of only a few hundredths of what is found on the Earth’s surface.
When the balloon has expanded beyond its elastic limit (about 20 feet in diameter) and bursts, the radiosonde returns to Earth via a small parachute. This slows its descent, minimizing the danger to life and property.
What Should You Do If You Find a Weather Balloon?
If found, radiosondes can be reconditioned and used again saving the taxpayer some money. If you find a fallen NWS radiosonde, it is safe to handle. Cut the string to the burst balloon and place it in a trash receptacle.
Next, remove the plastic mailbag attached to the handle of the radiosonde and place the instrument inside the bag. Hand the package to your postal carrier. Postage is prepaid if the instrument is returned in the United States.