Beachcombers find parts of lost research balloon equipment

The seventh Western Carolina University physics research balloon to be launched to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere – Cat 7 – left Cullowhee on Saturday, Feb. 1, and traveled unexpectedly to Tennessee, across Virginia and on to the Atlantic Ocean, where it appeared to be lost at sea. 

“The flight was amazing and epic, but we lost our equipment – everything,” said Michele Coker, a senior majoring in geology with a minor in physics.

The hydrogen-filled balloons carry about $1,500 worth of equipment – cameras, tracking devices, sensors and a radiation detector. The data collected during the flights helps students learn more about radiation levels and radiation sources in the atmosphere and about weather phenomena, such as dark lightning, said Enrique Gomez, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at WCU.

Dark lightning is an invisible burst of high-energy radiation immediately preceding a flash of lightning.

About a week after the Cat 7 flight, Coker received news that a portion of the equipment had been found. Two teachers walking on the beach in the town of Nags Head found the balloon’s science box. A few days later, a Southern Shores resident walking his dog located part of the radio box. Both parties shipped the recovered items to campus. Although the bulk of the equipment will have to be replaced, Coker believes she can retrieve some of the data and photos.

For more information about the research, contact Gomez at 227.2718 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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