Research balloon falls near San Jon

By Chelle Delaney: Quay County Sun

What was it that fell out of space?

“It looked like a giant inverted jellyfish,” said John Winter, who saw it drop from his backyard. “I’ve been in the military and seen weather balloons – three- and six-footers – but I never saw a 60-footer.”

The huge white object made a whistling sound as it moved swiftly through the air and then landed with a whomp about a mile from his home, said Winter.

After landing about 18 miles northeast of San Jon, it slumped and clumped into one of the biggest plastic snow drifts to ever hit this farm and ranch land.

Calls to Cannon Air Force Base and the National Weather Service provided no explanation. And those who saw or heard about it tried to fathom it all with explanations that ranged from a drug surveillance operation to a UFO to the rocket payload that was carrying the ashes of the late Scotty from Startrek.

The explanation – it was a gargantuan balloon used in astrophysics research – came from Bill Stepp who is operations manager of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in Fort Sumner.
The stories that got passed around? “We figure we haven’t done our job if we don’t get at least a half dozen stories like that,” said Bill Stepp, with a laugh.

A contractor for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it’s Columbia’s job to launch these gargantuan balloons, said Stepp, adding that they are employees of New Mexico State University.

This was the first of four balloon launches scheduled this year and its purpose was to conduct research in the area of astrophysics, Stepp said.

Winter had estimated the plastic mass left by the astro-balloon weighed several tons and if he was going to move it he’d need his tractor.

Stepp concurred. The plastic balloon weighed between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds, he said.

The balloons are inflated with helium and as they rise, the helium expands, Stepp said.

“They go up to outer limits of the earth’s atmosphere and to the edge of space,” he said.

Before the balloon fell on Wednesday, when it was still full of helium, it was about 513 feet in diameter and was 482 feet high. Three to four two-bedroom homes could have fit inside, Stepp said.

But the balloon wasn’t the only object that fell from space, though more slowly. The scientific data-recording instruments that had been inside the balloon also came floating down, attached to an orange parachute.

Louis Brown of San Jon saw the parachute falling from the sky. “It fell near Endee,” he said. “It was orange. I should have gone to see where it landed.”

The parachute, too, had a sizable payload, said Stepp, between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds.

Columbia’s recovery team picked up the payload, and brought in trailers to haul away the plastic. Columbia tracks the balloons during their flights and through radio communication controls their descents, Stepp said.

“By 10 p.m. that night we had recovered it all,” said Stepp.

The fallen balloon and its parachuted instruments are scientifically interesting. But the size and weight of those objects falling out of the sky are also a little scary, Winter said.

More on space balloons
Stepp suggested watching “Space Balloons” at 2 p.m. on May 22 on the Discovery Science Channel and visiting the Web site:

More on NASA balloons
Standard NASA scientific balloons are constructed of polyethylene film; the same type material used for plastic bags. This material is only 0.002 centimeters (0.0008 inches) thick, about the same as an ordinary sandwich wrap.

The balloon system includes the balloon, the parachute and a payload that holds instruments to conduct scientific measurements.

Helium, the same gas used to fill party balloons, is used in NASA balloons. These very large balloons can carry a payload weighing as much as 3,600 kilograms (8,000 pounds), about the weight of three small cars.

They can fly up to 42 kilometers (26 miles) high and stay there for up to two weeks.

After the science measurements are complete, flight controllers send a radio command that separates the payload from the balloon. The payload floats back to the ground on a parachute where it can be retrieved and flown again. Payload separation creates a large tear in the balloon material, which releases any remaining helium. The balloon also falls to the ground, where it s retrieved and discarded. The balloon and payload land approximately 45 minutes after separation.

Source: Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility Web site