Eight years ago, a group of eight high schoolers in central Japan attached a smartphone equipped with two cameras and a GPS to a weather balloon and let it go. It went up and up and... disappeared. In November this year, the cameras were found in the woods near Tokyo, revealing their 32-kilometer trip into the stratosphere and the blue curve of Earth against the blackness of space.
The eight teens launched the weather balloon in November 2012 as part of a class project at their high school in Iida, Nagano Prefecture. To avoid dense settlements and airports, the students released the balloon in the town of Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture, two prefectures to the west of Nagano. They expected the smartphone rig to parachute back to Earth after the balloon burst in the stratosphere, landing in or around Moka, Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. But things did not go to plan.
At around the 1,000-meter altitude mark, the students lost the balloon's signal, so they had no idea where it was, or would be when the balloon popped. They calculated that the smartphone may have ended up somewhere around Iimori ridge in the town of Tokigawa, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. However, they could not find the apparatus, and went on to graduate thinking it was lost.
Almost exactly eight years down the road, Toshiharu Suto, with the Shinrin Smile Plan forestry project based in the Saitama Prefecture town of Ogano, was working in the woods in Tokigawa, in an area with no mobile phone signal. As he looked up at the canopy to decide which direction he should fell a tree, he noticed what looked like a parachute and a box caught in the branches about 15 meters off the ground. When he cut down the tree and retrieved the box, he found the name and contact information of the students' teacher, Tomoyuki Fukuzawa.
Fukuzawa told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I'd long given up (on the balloon), so when I picked up the phone and heard the words, 'There's a parachute,' I was very surprised."
On Nov. 15, Fukuzawa and the now-graduates who had released the balloon opened the box at Iida OIDE Osahime High School, which their school had merged with in the intervening eight years. They checked the video files on the cameras, and saw to their delight the blue planet and the depths of space.
"The Earth is blue, and so very beautiful," one of the graduates told the Mainichi.
Now 26-year-old Sota Shimizu, who headed the group of eight students, commented, "The video was captured much more clearly than I'd expected. I'm very thankful to the person who found the parachute and got in touch."
(Japanese original by Mineichiro Yamakoshi, Saitama Bureau)