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Missing balloon experiment lands in Gilliam sheriff's lap

Tualatin High students disappointed in out-of-focus photos


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Matthias Weislogel, a senior at Tualatin High School, searches for a downed weather balloon near Condon, Ore., in October. The balloon was presumed stolen until it returned to the school last week.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The cameras onboard the Tualatin weather balloon captured only a handful of images, including this shot of an October sunrise.It has been quite a ride for students at Tualatin High School.

Students last week recovered a lost weather balloon filled with high-definition cameras. The balloon was launched in early October as part of an experiment to take thousands of photos from the stratosphere to create a first-of-its-kind panoramic photograph of the Earth.

The balloon traveled more than 170 miles into Eastern Oregon before disappearing east of Condon in Gilliam County.

After two days of searching, students found the discarded remains of the balloon, but the balloon’s cargo, containing the cameras and several GPS units, was missing.

Students knew someone had picked up the package, but with no leads and the GPS units unresponsive, the students were left in the dark as to what happened.

On Halloween night, the students got their answer. Chris Fitzsimmons had just gotten home from work at the Gilliam County Sheriff’s Office in Eastern Oregon when she saw the news.

“I had just walked into my house,” she said, “and I heard the word ‘Condon’ on the news.”

Fitzsimmons watched a story about the missing weather balloon and the high definition cameras that were being used to photograph the planet from the upper atmosphere.

“I turned to my husband and said, ‘Oh my God, we have that in our office,’ “ Fitzsimmons said.

The weather balloon landed on the side of the road, and a passerby called the local sheriff’s office, reporting the suspicious looking package.

The package was picked up by the Gilliam County Sheriff’s Office, where it sat for weeks while staff tried to decide the best way to send the cargo back.

Fitzsimmons called the news station — KATU in Portland — and was soon on the phone with Matthias Weislogel, a Tualatin High senior who planned the balloon launch as part of the school’s FIRST robotics team.

by: JON HOUSE - Students launch their high-altitude weather balloon at Tualatin High School in October. The balloon landed 170 miles away outside of Condon, where it was recovered by the local sheriffs office and held for weeks.The next day, a camera crew arrived to pick up the package and return it to the students at the high school.

“It’s good to have everything back,” Weislogel said, as he downloaded the cameras’ photos onto his computer.

The results weren’t what Weislogel or the rest of the team had expected. The cameras were meant to take more than 3,000 photos of the balloon’s ascent, which the students were going to stitch together into a panoramic of the Earth.

Instead, the students retrieved only 80 images, most out-of-focus shots of clouds.

“Oh man,” Weislogel muttered to himself, as the images downloaded. “That is so disappointing.”

The cameras automatically shut off after only a few minutes into their journey, dashing the students’ hopes of their panoramic from space.

Weislogel said, even though the project failed to complete its objective, it was far from a failure.

“The message for everyone here is to go out and do something exciting,” he said. “Do something, and even if it doesn’t work out, there is so much experience you gain doing the entire thing. A lot of the students gained a lot of experience through this.”

The team plans to launch a second weather balloon soon. They say they have learned from their mistakes the first go-round.

“We crunched too much into the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Next time, we’ll have some people on the road earlier so we are ahead of the balloon and there is less time between when it lands and when we arrive.”

The students arrived at the balloon’s crash site about 45 minutes after the sheriff’s office picked up the package, he said.

“Otherwise, we would have found it immediately,” Weislogel said.

Back in Condon, Fitzsimmons said if the students launch a second balloon, there is one major thing they should change.

“Put a phone number on the package,” she said. “If there had been a phone number, we would have called the day we got it.”

The second balloon launch is scheduled for later this winter.




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