LAKEBAY, Wash. -- A raw egg scrawled with a zany face, frozen from a two-hour, 18-mile-high journey to the stratosphere on a weather balloon, flanked by five GoPro cameras, chocolate candy and kids' poetry slowly parachutes out of the sky Monday afternoon, softly landing in a Tacoma backyard just a few feet from a unsuspecting gardener meticulously tending his lawn with his inquisitive dog nearby as an armada of scientists suddenly and excitedly peer over his fence.
Must be time for Key Peninsula Middle School's annual scientific experiment!
A five-year tradition of taking the egg drop challenge to dizzying heights was started by science teacher Richard Miller in 2013 just as he started teaching at the school.
"I wanted to do an activity that would be engaging to children and get them excited about science and technology," Miller said. "So we decided to get a weather balloon, put a raw egg on it and try to break a world record for highest egg drop." (He says there is no official world record for highest egg drop that he knows of, but the kids didn't care…)
The 2013 egg, named "Phil" survived the journey, reaching an estimated 109,000 feet before coming back to Earth some 217 miles away in Pasco. But video and data was limited on that jaunt -- the batteries didn't last long and the sensors had issues over 40,000 feet.
These days, they're using larger balloons with better, more robust sensors and five GoPro cameras on board to document the progress of "Jelly" -- this year's egg. But Jelly now has company: A marshmallow, two gummy bears and two Hershey kisses and a bunch of poems.
"One social studies teacher really got the kids involved and did some great poetry that we launched up into space so they could have that flown up there," Miller said.
It looks like they got a great view! Here's a sampling of what the five cameras caught on the journey:
And Miller said the sensors on board performed beautifully.
"We got just gorgeous data on everything from temperature to pressure to humidity to GPS location to speed of the balloon," Miller said.
Jelly and his sky-bound friends reached a peak height of 96,148 feet where the atmospheric pressure was just 19.2 milibars. That's only 1.9 percent of sea level pressure (1013 mb) and why the sky looks black even through Jelly wasn't really into space yet -- there's very little of the atmosphere left to scatter the sunlight into its familiar blue hue.
As the balloon reached in the edge of the stratosphere around the 40,000 foot range, the temperature had dropped to a bone chilling -48 degrees F. But for those of you who were with us when KOMO hitched a ride on a weather balloon in California last year, you might remember that at that level, the temperature actually rises for a bit with increasing altitude. When the balloon popped at 96,000 feet, the temperature outside had climbed to about the freezing mark at 31.5 degrees F.
The stratosphere goes to about 160,000 feet up and temperature rises with altitude here as you now get absorption of ultraviolet radiation. But once you go over 160,000 feet, you reach the mesosphere where the air is so thin there's not much there to absorb the UV rays, so the temperature plummets -- dropping as cold as about -180F. This holds until roughly 300,000 feet -- way above where any weather balloons could survive, so don't worry, Jelly!
The balloon then fell back into a -50F layer on its descent before gradually thawing back to to the 60s on the ground. Good thing Jelly was dressed in layers!
But while Jelly and friends traveled about 36 miles up and down, they didn't get that far away, and Harris' team didn't have to go nearly as far as previous years to track the balloon down.
"The winds aloft were very mellow Monday," Miller said. "It did most of its ascension above Gig Harbor proper."
And once the balloon popped, it stayed in the general vicinity.
(You can interact with the balloons path in Google Earth by importing this file.)
"We were able to drive under it and track the balloon as it came down," Miller said. "We saw it visually coming down from about 5-6 blocks away, so we were only about 1-2 minutes behind it landing."
And came down it did -- right into Tom Adams' back yard, who might go down as the most determined gardener since an Alberta man was photographed mowing his lawn as a tornado loomed on the horizon.
"The homeowner is in his backyard facing east, weeding against the fence line and the balloon came in from the west, just barely clearing his rooftop, landing about 12-15 feet behind him," Miller said. "He said he heard a 'thump' behind him but he didn't even turn around because he assumed it was is neighbors and kept weeding. And his little Jack Russell dog was there and their cameras captured the dog running around the probe kinda sniffing it out. That was really cute.
"So Tom keeps on weeding for the 3-4 minutes until we stick our heads over his fence and all start yelling," Miller continued. "And he turned around and here's these three-or four science guys leaning over his fence while he's got this giant balloon is in his backyard. And it landed right at feet of bear statue holding a sign that says 'Welcome'. That was really ironic and cute."
Once the homeowner got over the initial shock, "he was very friendly and invited us into his backyard." -- Even posed with the balloon.
And Jelly? Still in one piece!
"It did crack, and once we got it home and it stated to thaw, it cracked a little more," Miller said, adding it now safely in a plastic container and the Key Peninsula Middle School record books.
"(We) ran a contest to how long the flight time would be, how high it would get, the lat/long of landing," Miller said. "The kids got a real kick out of it."
And Jelly can take solace it fared better than "Steve" who made the journey in 2015. When the balloon popped, it knocked out the sensors, dooming the balloon to being lost in the woods along Tiger Mountain. Miller says it took over 500 days for a hiker searching for caves to stumble upon the balloon. The cameras survived the winter buried in snow but the egg? Some critter's lunch.