Terry County farmer Gabe Neill had an interesting surprise on Sunday. “I was driving my tractor on one of my farms south of T&S Produce doing some shredding. I could see something on the horizon that wasn’t supposed to be there.”
What Gabe saw was about a 50 foot diameter circle of a plastic material that was about four feet high. It was located in the middle of his field, about 100 yards off the road.
“I figured it was a crashed weather balloon,” stated Gabe. There had been a few posts on social media about seeing a shiny object floating in the sky. “All I knew for sure was that it looked like it was going to be a big mess to get rid of.”
While Gabe was shredding, a NASA truck pulled up and flagged him down. It turns out that Gabe was not wrong. It was a balloon from the Columbia Balloon Research that had been launched in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico on Saturday.
The driver of the truck told Gabe that the instruments had jettisoned from the balloon and landed near New Moore, east of where Gabe was.
The driver also told Gabe that the entire weather balloon, now lying in Gabe’s field weighed in the neighborhood of 7,000 pounds. A crane came out to pick up the balloon, which took about an hour and a half, according to Gabe.
The driver also told Gabe a story about a balloon landing on a reservation and they would not allow NASA to retrieve it. They burned it. Turns out that when the balloon material burns, it becomes more or less a hot lava, and a much bigger mess than anyone anticipated it would be.
The balloon in Gabe’s field was crashed on purpose after its work was completed. The instrument package that crashed east of Gabe’s field was equipped with a bright orange and white parachute so it can be seen and little to no damage is done to the instrument package.
Gabe, who would not normally be on the tractor on Sunday, stated, “It’s funny. If I had not gone to the field that day, I guess I would have never known what happened or what caused all the tracks and flattened stalks in my field.”
In looking at the Columbia Research Balloon site, this flight was classified as JPL REMOTE FALL 2021 Flight # 717N and it landed 138 Nm from its point of origin.
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 film is cut into banana-peel shaped sections called gores and heat sealed together to form the balloon. Up to 180 gores are used to make NASA’s largest balloons. These standard, zero-pressure, balloons are open to the atmosphere at the bottom to equalize the internal pressure with the surroundings. The balloon system includes the balloon, the parachute and a payload that holds instuments 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.
The Balloon Program’s capabilities are being expanded with the development of an Ultra Long Duration Balloon (ULDB). The ULDB is made of advanced materials and uses a new pumpkin-shaped balloon design to achieve flights of up to 100 days. The ULDB is completely sealed and pressurized in order to maintain constant altitude night and day. The ULDB payload consists of a solar power system, radio receivers and transmitters, computers, batteries and other systems required for science experiments.
The balloon is launched by partially filling it with helium and launched with the payload section suspended beneath it. As the balloon rises, the helium expands, filling the balloon until it reaches float altitude in two to three hours.
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.
So, there it is. A close encounter of the plastic kind in the middle of a cotton field in West Texas.