Weather balloon from New York surprises local couple

Weather balloon from New York surprises local couple

Michele and Robert Guilmette of Burrillville hold up the weather balloon, parachute and radiosonde that crash-landed in their Tarkiln Road driveway last Wednesday, May 8. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)

BURRILLVILLE – For Robert and Michele Guilmette, an unexpected visitor turned an otherwise ordinary weekday into something extraordinary last Wednesday, May 8.

Michele Guilmette was trimming the hedges in the backyard around 9:45 a.m. and Robert was on his way out to run errands when a small, white box crash-landed in the driveway of their Tarkiln Road home. The box brought with it about 100 feet of twine and an orange parachute that caught on the corner of the roof on the way down.

“I opened the garage door and this thing comes crashing down,” recalled Robert. “I said, what the heck? I thought my neighbor was pranking me.”

As it turned out, the box was an LMS6 radiosonde, a device developed by Lockheed Martin to take weather measurements and send the information back to meteorologists by radio signal. According to a handwritten note, the box had left the National Weather Service offices at Albany, New York, at 7 a.m. that morning. A quick calculation told Robert the box had traveled more than 180 miles in a little under three hours before ending its journey in his driveway.

“I just thought it was such a unique thing. It just doesn’t happen very often to many people,” he said.

Attached to the radiosonde and parachute were the remnants of a rubber weather balloon. After some research, the Guilmettes learned the Albany station is one of dozens of National Weather Service stations around the country where meteorologists release the balloons to track daily conditions. Each balloon is inflated with hydrogen to a diameter of five feet before being released and rising at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute. Once caught by the wind, the balloon can travel up to 250 miles per hour, landing 180 miles or further from its release point.

As it rises, the hydrogen expands, and the balloon increases in size up to 25 feet in diameter. At that point, the balloon bursts and the radiosonde drifts back to earth. By the time it reaches the ground, the device may have traveled as high as 22 miles above sea level, where temperatures can reach -130 degrees Fahrenheit and the air pressure is less than 1 percent of what is found at the earth’s surface.

While the Styrofoam and cardboard outer packaging of the radiosonde gives it the appearance of a student’s science experiment, inside, the device is packed with complex weather instruments. In addition to temperature, humidity and air pressure, the device measures altitude and wind speed using a GPS tracker, while a radio transmits the data to one of 92 upper-air observation stations around the U.S. A lithium battery keeps everything running during flight. The radiosonde also comes equipped with nearly 100 feet of twine allowing it to suspend far below the balloon, avoiding interference with weather readings.

“It’s amazing it didn’t get hooked up in the trees,” said Michele.

The device comes with return instructions and a prepaid postage bag, but, according to the National Weather Service, only about one in five are ever recovered, as many are lost in trees or over the ocean. As for the Guilmettes, Robert said they plan to return the radiosonde, but not before showing it to his granddaughter’s 5th-grade class at Steere Farm Elementary School. For the retired schoolteacher, the education opportunity was too good to pass up.

“It makes you learn a new appreciation for how the whole system operates,” he said.

A close-up of the radiosonde.