Starkville Academy fifth-grade student Blake Casano, left, holds equipment attached to a weather balloon while Mary Holland Nicholas holds the balloon. The students released the balloon during a demonstration at Starkville Academy. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
Mississippi State University Meteorology Professor and State Climatologist Mike Brown, left, and senior MSU meteorology students Vasily Baraniuk, Madison Campbell and Lauren Pounds fill a weather balloon from helium tanks in the back of their van. The team performed a weather balloon launch Thursday morning at Starkville Academy.
Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
February 8, 2019 11:10:48 AM
Mary Holland Nicholas thought the weather balloon might carry her away.
Nicholas, along with fellow fifth-grader Blake Casano, held a weather balloon against buffeting late-morning winds as their peers -- led by Mississippi State University meteorology professor and State Climatologist Mike Brown -- loudly counted down from five.
The balloon, which was about as large as each of the fifth graders, zipped off to the skies after the countdown reached "one."
"I thought it was going to blow me over," Nicholas said. "And if she (Casano) had it, it might have blown her completely away."
Casano said she was surprised to see how large the balloon got as the launch team inflated it with helium.
"Whenever it was blowing up, I thought it would be a little balloon," she said. "But when it was blowing up, I was like 'Is it going to stop? How big is it going to get? It was really big.'"
Starkville Academy fifth grade students gathered in front of the school on Thursday to watch -- and in Nicholas' and Casano's case, participate in -- a weather balloon launch. Brown, with three of his students, used the launch to help teach the kids how weather scientists collect data.
Thursday's launch came ahead of a cold front that swept through the region, and Brown said the launches are often performed ahead of severe weather systems to collect data for forecasting. The balloons carry equipment that Brown said collects a vertical profile of winds, temperature and moisture in the atmosphere.
While the front that passed through the area on Thursday didn't pose any severe weather threat, Brown said it would lead to a drop in temperatures.
Brown's team is part of a research program called VORTEX Southeast, which he said works to investigate the types of environments that lead to tornadic storms. The program includes nine university launch teams and 13 National Weather Service launch teams.
"Everybody did it at that time," he said. "All the balloons went up so we get a high-resolution look at the atmosphere."
During the demonstration, Brown showed the students a range of balloons that can be used, from very small ones, to the one it launched -- which he said can expand to being larger than a van once it gets high up into the atmosphere.
He said the balloon would go about eight miles up into the atmosphere and travel far enough for its data collection equipment, guided by a parachute after the balloon popped, to fall back to the ground around the Birmingham, Alabama area -- much to the students' amazement. Brown said the weather team would collect data from the balloon for about an hour, but it could continue to fly for up to another hour after that process finished.
While Brown said the launches are fairly routine for weather scientists, who are more interested in the data the balloons collect, he hopes they help spark an interest in science for the students.
"This gets kids excited, to see the giant balloons and those kinds of things," he said. "Any time you can get kids excited about science, you're doing a real service. That's my hope anyway -- especially some of the young ladies here. We brought out three of my very best students and two of them are females. So I hope some of the young girls look at that and see all of this is possible."
Starkville Academy Head of School Jeremy Nicholas said Thursday's demonstration spoke to the work Starkville Academy is doing to educate its students in STEM areas, and in working with MSU.
"This is about as hands-on as you can get, when you can hold the balloon and equipment and launch it yourself," he said. "It's all a part of making learning fun."
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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