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Name: Tom
Status: other
Grade: other
Location: FL
Country: N/A
Date: 8/28/2005


Question:
I live in Orlando, Fl. and on 8/16/05 around 8:30pm I watched through binoculars what I thought was a high altitude weather balloon in the eastern sky about half way between the horizon and directly overhead. The sun had set but it was still to early for stars to be seen. The object had slowly moved to the west and was not quite overhead when it exploded into a debris field and a few larger pieces seemed to be falling rather rapidly. I followed them until one by one they fell into the earths shadow and were no longer visible. I've searched the web to see if I could find a site that tracks weather balloons (similar to the ones to track satellites for viewing) to no avail. I would like to be sure of what I saw this evening. Any thoughts or suggestions?


Replies:
Dear Tom-

What you saw was most likely a weather balloon. The National Weather Service and Department of Defense release weather balloons at least twice a day from more than 70 locations in the U.S., including 5 locations in Florida. The balloons loft a weather sensing instrument below them, called a rawinsonde, and it reaches heights greater than 100,000 feet before the balloon bursts, and the instrument falls back to the earth beneath an attached plastic parachute. Locations in Florida releasing rawinsondes are Tallahassee, Tampa, Key West, Miami, Cape Canaveral, and Jacksonville.

Winds at lower levels are generally from the west, but at high altitudes they are often from the east. So a balloon moving west before bursting would not be unusual. It takes the balloons from 90 minutes to 2 hours to reach their bursting altitude. The balloons start out about 6 feet in diameter, and at burst altitude expand to more than 30 feet in diameter, or as large as a house. Most of the weather instruments land in unpopulated areas and are not recovered. But sometimes they are found, and there is a mailing label enclosed so they can be sent to a reconditioning center and reused.

One of my first jobs with the National Weather Service was releasing those weather balloons, and then tracking them untill they burst. The weather data, such as winds, temperature, air pressure, and humidity are transmitted back to the release site by a radio transponder. This important weather information is collected at the National Meteorological Center and used in numerical models for weather forecasts.

Wendell Bechtold, meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO


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