LETART FALLS — During his routine morning patrol, local cat Marcus Aurelius watched an unidentified object descend from the sky and crash land just feet in front of him.
After a brief “paws” he moved to investigate and quickly determined it did not contain food or catnip. Still uncertain if the object posed a threat to his territory, he notified a local reporter, who was also the property owner. The reporter grabbed a camera and headed to the crash site, finding a small white box attached to an orange parachute.
The box was clearly marked National Weather Service (NWS) and indicated it did not contain hazardous materials.
The NWS is a federal agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tasked with providing weather forecasts, warnings, and information. According to NOAA representative Meteorologist Chris Hogue the object was a radiosonde, or data collector, launched from NOAA’s Wilmington Station to remotely capture data over radio frequency.
He said radiosondes are attached to a balloon, and launched from NWS stations across North American. Each station typically launches two per day, occasionally three if there is severe weather or if additional measurements are ordered for special weather events. The balloon carries the device into the upper levels of the atmosphere and usually moves from west to east. It can travel up to 180 miles in the stronger winds of the winter months.
According to NOAA, when released, the balloon is about five feet in diameter and gradually expands in size as it rises owing to the decrease in air pressure. When the balloon reaches a diameter of 20 to 25 feet, it bursts. A small, orange colored parachute slows the descent of the radiosonde, minimizing the danger to lives and property.
Much of the surface area of the small white box that is the radiosonde is dedicated to text identifying it as a “harmless weather instrument.”
When asked why there is such a fuss of it being harmless, Hogue replied, “It lands where it lands, we don’t control where it goes. The main thing is letting people know it is not harmful when they find it.”
He also said that parts are reusable, and the finder can send the radiosonde back to NOAA by following the directions taped on the device via a pre-set up with the United States Postal Service.
“The battery only works once,”Hogue said, “But we reuse as much as possible,” refurbishing around 20 percent.
How often do they find their way back to the home station? According to a local postmaster, she had one come through her branch in the past six months, and she was about to take possession of a second.
This particular radiosonde, recovered along the bank of the Ohio River in Letart Falls, was launched from the NWS’s Wilmington station. It made the 137 mile journey home via post.
So after retrieval of the mysterious object, photographing, research, and speaking with scientists at NOAA, the verdict was that unlike Roswell, it really was a weather balloon.
All radiosonde data is public domain and available at https://ruc.noaa.gov/raobs/General_Information.html
© 2020 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing. Michael Hart also contributed to this article.