Check Before Launching Your Own Weather Balloon (to Minimize SUV Damage and Other Mayhem)

Geek Culture

We all thought it was pretty cool last week when two Canadian teens managed to launch a Lego minifig into space (well, very high altitude, anyway). As a fellow Canuck, I was especially proud of their effort. We get a little tired here of stories about the Canadarm whenever Canada and space travel are mentioned together. Before any haters get on me, I’ve seen the Canadarm up close — it’s cool, it’s a nice piece of technology, but it’s had the spotlight for 30 years. Lego space man is a refreshing change. However, just as the media was all over the original story, Canadian newspapers were back at it this weekend, only this time it was to warn any other kids with similar ideas to think twice.

In particular, officials are concerned that a slew of copycat weather balloon launches could pose a risk to commercial aviation. For example, in a Toronto Star article, Air Canada Pilots Association safety chairman Captain Barry Wiszniowski was interviewed and pointed out: “A pilot may not have enough reaction time if such a balloon popped up unexpectedly. With the speed of a plane, the impact could be similar to a bird strike and could cause damage, especially if something was sucked into an engine.”

Transport Canada suggests that any would be balloon launchers check with them first, to ensure no risk to aviation safety.

I did a little research to see what what kind of mayhem weather balloon crashes have caused in the past. It turns out they can cause trouble, although it’s usually expensive damage to onboard instrumentation. However, here are a few notable incidents where wayward weather balloons have been problematic:

  • In the UK, the Met Office (the national weather service) has paid out nearly $40,000 in compensation in the past five years for weather balloon related incidents, including broken windows and a damaged car.
  • A 2010 crash of a NASA weather balloon during launch in Australia (seen in the video above) sent people running and totally smashed an innocent SUV.
  • Your kid could allegedly end up inside one and lead half the country on a wild goose chase.
  • A weather balloon is one of the more common theories used to explain the UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico and Area 51. I don’t think Canadians are prepared for a UFO scandal of that scope and duration.

I couldn’t find any factual evidence of a weather balloon colliding with an airplane (and for the record, no reports of Lego minifigs bringing down anything that wasn’t made of plastic bricks itself). But it still sounds like it would be a good idea to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered before launching a few pounds of electronics and Lego 80,000 feet up.

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