MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Twins sluggers Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham have combined to hit 53 home runs this season, so they know a thing or two about sending a baseball out of the park.
But on Sunday, the Twins players helped send a baseball further than any home run either of them has ever hit. Before Sunday’s Twins game against the Chicago White Sox, a group of University of Minnesota students launched a weather balloon that carried a baseball autographed by Morneau and Willingham.
The balloon was expected to enter the stratosphere and reach an altitude of approximately 70,000 feet before popping.
The students, mostly engineering majors at the University of Minnesota, tracked the balloon’s flight in real time via GPS. The Twins used Twitter to update followers about the balloon’s status during Sunday’s game.
The launch was part of a kickoff event for Minnesota Aerospace and Aviation Week, which runs Sept. 16-22. To help celebrate the event, the Twins welcomed Bob Cabana, the director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, to Target Field. Cabana is a Minneapolis native and was a part of four shuttle missions with NASA.
“I love talking to students of all ages and sharing my experiences with them, letting them know what you can do if you apply yourself,” Cabana said. “What you learn on launching a weather balloon, you say, ‘Is that going to space?’ Well, it’s going to the edge of space. It’s up there at 70,000 feet. The systems engineering that goes into putting packages together to record the data and make everything work, the kids learn an awful lot by doing hands-on work and integrating all they’ve learned in the classroom.”
James Flaten is the associate director of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, a college-level NASA program, and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. He said the group had to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to launch the balloon from Target Field, which is in downtown Minneapolis. Normally, the weather balloons are launched outside of the Twin Cities.
“This is giving students at the undergraduate level some familiarity with space flight, space environment, space vehicles,” Flaten said. “On flights of this sort, you can actually do some good science.”
By the midway point of Sunday’s game, the balloon had crossed the St. Croix River into Wisconsin, with one camera pointing downward to show the balloon’s flight and two more cameras directed at the autographed baseball.
After the balloon pops, the baseball and cameras will descend via a parachute and land about 50 miles east of Target Field, somewhere in western Wisconsin.