Watching the weather with a bird’s-eye view

MARSHALL – The words “summer vacation” tend to conjure up images of the beach or a lake cabin. But for one family visiting Marshall on Sunday afternoon, vacation was a chance to conduct a science experiment – launching a weather balloon to take photographs of the stratosphere.

“This is not a very populated area, so we thought it would be easier to find the balloon again,” said Brett Fine, explaining why he chose Marshall as a launch point. Fine, his wife Alana, and their children Gabriella, Zachary, Sylvia and Lily all live in Maryland, but visit Minnesota in the summer.

“We’re going to try and make it go up into space,” Sylvia Fine said of the balloon.

Brett Fine had bought a meteorological balloon on the Internet, and he and Alana put together a homemade styrofoam capsule, which they tied to the balloon along with an orange parachute. Two digital cameras were secured inside the capsule, and a GPS unit was attached to the top of the capsule, so the Fines could track the balloon’s progress. The whole setup had to weigh four pounds or less, Alana Fine said.

The final ingredient was helium gas, bought from a party-supply store.

Brett Fine said the helium in the balloon would carry it up into the atmosphere, and then expand and pop the balloon. Then, hopefully, the family would be able to find where the capsule fell using the GPS.

However, not everything went according to plan Sunday. The Fines had gotten city permission to launch the balloon at Windstar Park, but it proved to be too windy. Then they asked permission to use the back yard at Dave Voigt and Michelle Legatte’s house nearby.

Legatte said she was surprised to see a weather capsule under construction in the yard. “I’m like, ‘Oh, so what weather service are they with?’ And Dave said, ‘I don’t think they’re with any service.'”

As the Fines worked to put the capsule together and inflate the balloon with helium, the big question on everyone’s mind was: would it actually fly? The group headed back to the park and climbed a hill, where Brett Fine let go of the balloon.

The launch was a nail-biter, with the capsule grazing the ground a couple of times and clipping the fence of the park’s baseball field.

“My heart, like, dropped when I saw it,” said Gabriella Fine. But then the balloon slowly started climbing into the sky.

In a few minutes, the balloon was so high it punched through a low-hanging cloud and disappeared from sight.

“If this works out, it’ll be so great,” Alana Fine said.