Weather Balloons Collect Ozone Data

After a year of data collections an unusual research project at Rice University is providing insight into how ozone builds up around the city of Houston.

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Scott Hersey is bending over a small styrofoam box that has various wires and tubes sticking out. Hersey is a senior at Rice University and is one of the lead researchers on the Tropospheric Ozone Pollution Project, or TOPP. The project involves sending weather balloons up through Houston's atmosphere to measure and collect data on ozone levels. Rice Adjunct Physics Professor Gary Morris started the project last year. He says it's relatively easy to measure ozone levels near the ground, but this is the first attempt to do so at high elevations.

In fact that's one of the interesting things learned from last year's balloon launches. Houston ozone levels were affected by smoke particles from forest fires burning in Alaska and Canada. Out in the quad, Hersey is filling the balloon with helium in preparation for the launch.

The balloon ascends at a rate of about 1,000 feet per minute. The largest balloons can reach a height of 100,000 feet before they lose pressure and explode. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is funding the project through next year. Morris says the TCEQ is looking for two basic results from the data.

It's time for launch. Hersey has already called the local FAA and Life Flight offices to let them know a weather balloon is heading into the airways. The wind is picking up a bit, so he has to maneuver the balloon out into the center of the quad where it can't get snagged in any trees.

Launch number 68 is a success. Hersey will launch another dozen or so this year with another 40 to follow next summer.

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