Global flight ends in NU senior’s yard
There must be something about the geography and climate surrounding Nevada Union High School senior James Fritz’s home near Marysville that makes balloons floating overhead drop more frequently than snow in the Sierra Nevada.
“On my ranch, we get a lot of balloons from car lots, party balloons, birthday balloons, happy anniversary balloons …,” said Fritz, 18.
But none of this explains how a weather balloon launched from England, possibly two years ago, ended up on his family’s land a few weeks back.
Fritz was feeding cattle on the morning of Feb. 21 with his mother when he saw a string hooked to a fence. His mother pulled on the line, following it out to some weeds. The string led to a popped balloon on one end – no surprise there – and a small cardboard box on the other.
He brought his find inside and washed it off to find the model number “RS90-AG,” and the year 2002.
With the help of a teacher, Fritz researched the weather balloon on the Web and found that the “Vaisala Radio-sounding RS90-AG” attaches to a weather balloon and measures temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed.
It was launched by scientists at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Wales in Great Britain to test new equipment for the university starting in 2002.
While someone else might have discarded the new information, Fritz – who is learning how to fly an airplane and plans on studying environmental science and engineering after graduating – did a little more digging and e-mailed the university.
“I was excited; I had to double-check three times to make sure what it was,” he said.
“It surprised me how air currents work and how far something can travel.”
After being launched, the balloon and device, which was manufactured in Denmark, most likely traveled east over Russia and Japan before coming down in Marysville, said Professor Geraint Vaughan, of the University of Wales.
“Most of these things fall down within 100 kilometers (about 60 miles),” Vaughan said.
“I’m astounded it has gone around the world.”
He said that while finding a balloon is common because there are about 6,000 stations around the world launching about two each day, Fritz’s find was far from expected.
“What is uncommon is our device found itself in California,” he said.
Vaughan said the farthest one of the university’s launched devices has made it before was to Denmark, where one landed on a rooftop in Copenhagen.
“Of course, it was not as small as (the one Fritz found), so it made quite a bang” when it hit while the resident was inside, Vaughan said.
“She got scared out of her skin,” he said.
The widest hole in this puzzle is when the balloon was launched. While the device reads “2002,” Vaughan said it likely marks the manufacturing date.
“I wouldn’t have thought it could have stayed in the stratosphere so long,” he said, adding it probably was launched this winter, when the winds could have pushed it faster than the summer.
Since the university did not keep track of when each of its balloons was launched, there is probably no way to tell for sure, he said.
And the measurements the device would have taken on its journey halfway across the world are useless because the device would have stopped transmitting data to the university after leaving the area of Wales.
“What is amazing,” Vaughan said, “is where it ended up.”
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