Search for missing weather balloon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Apr 15, 2022, 11:07 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2022, 5:21 pm

KANAB, Utah — There’s a lot of empty room at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

“We’re so huge. We’re bigger than the state of Delaware,” said Supervisory ranger Danny Pollard.

Most of it is about as remote as you can get, and somewhere in all that open land is a weather balloon that crashed just a couple of weeks ago.

“When I got that phone call, I was like, ‘Oh wow, like, this is a lot more than where can I go hiking, or where’s the best hotel I can get a night at, or where can I get the best chicken fried steak? This was something a little more rangery,” Pollard said.

Pollard, who is with the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, got a team together to find the GPB tracking beacon from that weather balloon. They searched for nearly four hours in the dark but were able to find it roughly eight miles off of Nipple Bench Road.

“I’m just glad we didn’t find it spewed across a mile worth in a million pieces,” Pollard said.

However, the casing part of the weather balloon that was holding experiments and data wasn’t there.

“Hopefully, with enough eyes and boots, we can find it, he said.

That weather balloon was launched as part of a school project in Hercules, California, last month. It was a collaboration between Vista Virtual Academy and Hercules Middle School.

“A main focus for us is learning through meaningful connections and experiments,” said Olaoluwalotobi Thomas, a science teacher at Vista Virtual Academy. “Our district curriculum had a learning segment about atmospheric science.”

Thomas is the kind of teacher who speaks with excitement, enthusiasm and passion.

When he told his students about launching a weather balloon into the ozone layer, his excitement spread to them.

“When students see me excited, and I see some of the students get excited, I get even more excited. So, we’re just like building on each other,” Thomas said with a laugh.

Their parents and others in the community raised $1,000 for the project.

The data recorders attached to the weather balloon would record video and take data from the atmosphere. Students even filed NOTAM (notice to air missions) paperwork with the FAA.

On the morning they launched it, though, they noticed something was wrong right away.

“Oh, yeah, like instantaneously. We knew something went wrong. As soon as we let go of the payload. I saw so many kids jump. We were all trying to like grab it, but it was already gone,” Thomas said.

The problem was a helium miscalculation.

“The lift was extremely slow. After we tracked it for about 30 minutes, we did some calculations. We saw that the beginning lift was about 0.8 meters per second, and that’s like two miles per hour, well below our desired lift, which was about 4.5 to 5 meters per second,” Thomas said.

The flight was supposed to last two hours, but it just kept going.

It flew across California, then through Nevada, before the balloon burst over Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

“It was my first time hearing about the Grand Staircase,” Thomas said with a laugh.

He called the rangers with the Monument to let them know where the GPS beacon was.

When Pollard told him he found the beacon, but the rest of the project was still missing, he asked if rangers could help spread the word to hikers in the area to be on the lookout for the data recorders.

“To get this onboard computer with the sensors and the video footage back would means so much to us,” Thomas said. “I mean, a major message in our science classes that we try to convey to students that we want to learn from every single situation.”

Even though this mission didn’t go exactly as planned, Thomas says it’s still a great learning moment for his students.

“One thing I tell the students is that a lot of the stuff we use today were accidental, like with experiments and invention,” he said. “So, it’s, you know, accidents are a really good thing in science at times.”

If nothing else, his students learned where the Grand Staircase is and how remote it is.

Pollard knows some people will be heading out to look for it. He wants those who might be new to the area to know how unforgiving the land can be.

“Get a map. There’s very limited cell service out there. We also recommend geo reference maps,” he said. “Our visitor centers have paper maps. Take them with you. Take water. Tell someone you’re going out there. Take a tow strap. It is an adventure, but be careful out there.”

If someone finds the data recorders, Pollard says you can bring it to any ranger’s office or visitors center, and they will make sure the equipment is returned to the students.

“Hopefully it doesn’t become like Montezuma’s Gold, you know, and we’re looking for the next 20 years,” Pollard said with a laugh.

Those data recorders are out there somewhere just waiting to be found.

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Search for missing weather balloon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument