It's a Miracle... It's a plane... it's a UFO... It's a balloon

It’s a plane… it’s a UFO… It’s a balloon

The city on Wednesday woke up to an unidentified flying object (UFO) floating in the north-eastern sky or so some thought even as other sky gazers took excited shots of the rare celestial event. But when it refused to vanish from the sky even when the sun was well above the horizon, the curiosity levels rose and the rumour mills started working overtime. Would a UFO come hurtling down from the city sky?

The city was soon buzzing with messages on the transparent object floating in the sky beeping on cell phones and experts at the planetary society and Birla Planetarium were inundated with calls. Some local news channels too started flashing the news repeatedly about the mysterious object looking down at the city from the sky.

As it turned out, the 'bright' object was a huge scientific balloon and was launched by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Balloon Facility, located at ECIL in Hyderabad, into the space last night. The massive balloon with a volume of four lakh cubic metres and with a diameter of a cricket stadium was in the sky between 1 am and 11 am on Wednesday.

Officials at TIFR said the unmanned research balloon loaded with huge equipment weighing over 1,000 kg was launched to study astrophysical sources in the space. The hydrogen balloon was at an altitude of a record 41 km at around 7.30 am. "Its diameter was that of a cricket stadium. Because of its huge size, it was visible to the naked eye," said an official from TIFR adding that an aircraft flies at a maximum altitude of 15 kilometres. He further said that later in the day, after the readings were completed, the balloon was destroyed and the payload (the equipment) was separated with a parachute. The parachute landed in Jangaon, close to Warangal highway.

Being the only major balloon facility in the world close to the geomagnetic equator, TIFR Balloon Facility at ECIL is extensively used by researchers from all over the world. Officials here said that they launch three to four research balloons on an average annually.

Experts said that a few decades ago in the absence of satellites, the only way to study upper air observations was through balloons. Even with the latest equipment in place, the Met department in Hyderabad launches balloons in the mornings and evenings. But these are smaller balloons that can go up to a limited height. "The TIFR institute takes up these operations silently. People indeed mistook it for a UFO," said N Raghunandan Kumar of Planetary Society, India.

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