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Experimental Balloon Launch Could Forecast Release of Harmful Toxins

Photograph by Justin D. Knight
Jonathan Smith, a third year Atmospheric Science doctoral student, and Derek
Parks, NOAA field engineer, prepare to launch a weather balloon
from the main quad of Howard University.

By André Nicholson

WASHINGTON (Sept. 15, 2009) – Up, up and away it scientists and students launched an experimental balloon from Howard University’s main quadrangle.

Researchers from Howard in conjunction with Penn State, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC), and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Air Resources Laboratory – NOAA National Center for Environmental Prediction conducted a portion of the study Tuesday, but it will continue until Sept. 22 across the Washington D.C. region.

“The primary purpose of the experiment is to examine the structure of the mixed layer (1-2 miles above the ground) over an urban setting,” said Gregory Jenkins, Ph.D., chair Department of Physics, professor of atmospheric sciences. “The data collected will help improve models that are used for examining everything from air pollution from cars and power plants to potential threats of biological or chemical nature that could impact the population of Washington DC and the surrounding area.”

Jenkins explained that the balloons will record information and send it back to a computer where the information can be stored.

“The balloons provide the lift for a small box (Radiosonde) which measures temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and wind direction along with ascent rate (how fast the balloon is going up),” Jenkins said. “The Radiosonde collects the meteorological data and transmits it down to the receiver and the computer (laptop) where the data is stored. The data is then posted on the web in real-time.”

In collaboration with Jenkins on the field study at Howard was Physical Scientist Christopher Vogel, Ph.D., NOAA Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division. Jenkins explained that he has collaborated with Vogel in the past and the physics department at Howard is currently hosting an instrument (balloon) on the roof of their building

“There are many weather balloons within the DC area, mostly at airports, but not many at this mid-level to measure pollutants,” said Vogel. “And this is the first time we are doing it here at Howard University.”

There are balloon launches every two hours starting at 9 a.m. through 5 p.m., from Howard and also simultaneously from RFK Stadium in order to get spatial readings.

“We launched balloons from the roof of Locke Hall, but I along with the NOAA scientist all felt that it was important to have HU students involved. Not just the students in physics or atmospheric scientists but make the experience available to all of the students,” Jenkins said. “So we just asked random students to help launch the balloons. Many students also stopped to ask questions. This is the spirit of research that we are hoping to raise on this campus. Research is not something foreign but something that many faculty members and students are involved in--often time pushing their disciplines forward but also serving societal needs. It was also nice to have the Dean of COAS (Dean Donaldson) involved.”

Note to the Media

If your are interested in covering the launch, contact Kerry-Ann Hamilton, media relations manager, at or 202.238.2332.


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