The seventh Western Carolina University physics research balloon to be launched to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere – Cat 7 – left Cullowhee on Saturday, Feb. 1, and traveled unexpectedly to Tennessee, across Virginia and on to the Atlantic Ocean, where it appeared to be lost at sea. The hydrogen-filled balloons carry about $1,500 worth of equipment – cameras, tracking devices, sensors and a radiation detector. The data collected helps students learn more about radiation levels and radiation sources in the atmosphere and about weather phenomena such as dark lightning, said Enrique Gomez, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. Dark lightning is an invisible burst of high-energy radiation immediately preceding a flash of lightning. About a week after the Cat 7 flight, Coker received surprising and good news. Two teachers walking on the beach at the Outer Banks found the balloon’s science box, and a few days later, a Southern Shores resident located part of the radio box. Although the equipment will have to be replaced, Coker is excited about the possibility of being able to retrieve some of the data from it and continuing to investigate what happened with Cat 7. The crew assisting with the launch was small, which made holding on to the balloon difficult. The craft ascended more slowly than previous balloons but clocked 130 mph at just under 50,000 feet “When the balloon got into the upper jetstream, it took off and was soon halfway through Virginia,” said Coker. Coker met up with chase team volunteers including members of the Catamount Amateur Radio Group and the Haywood County Amateur Radio Club at Cracker Barrel in Statesville. They monitored the balloon’s radio signals, some of which were not functioning properly, and periodic location updates. The balloon traveled about 560 miles in 6 hours and 41 minutes, reporting a maximum altitude of 90,510 feet over Gloucester, Va. The craft continued east, and the group realized continuing the chase would likely require a boat. Coker said she notified the Coast Guard about Cat 7 and reached out to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which gave her updates about conditions and accessibility. The equipment continued to transmit location coordinates through the night before falling quiet. A week later and about 100 miles away from the balloon’s last reported location, two teachers from Poquoson Middle School in Virginia walking on the beach noticed what looked like a cooler held together with duct tape and wires washing up on the beach. Out of an abundance of caution, Penny Huskey and Doreen Nadolny left the package on the beach and had fun letting their imaginations wander. An officer contacted the radio group using a phone number found online and spoke with Daniel deCourt, a WCU alumnus who had been part of past balloon flight projects. The science box of Western Carolina University’s Cat 7 research balloon washed up on shore in the Town of Nags Head. the research balloon experiments help teach about basic science as well as how to carry an experiment from conception to design, deployment, retrieval and analysis. As for Cat 7, they have high hopes that the flight’s research data can be retrieved from the salvaged equipment. Previous flights have suggested a peak of radiation at that layer of transition between atmospheric layers, which is expected from cosmic rays.