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Published Oct. 20, 2008

A fleet of special balloons may soon help hurricane forecasters better predict the path of storms. But at a cost of up to $2,000 a pop, these aren't your average birthday party decorations.

The clear, pyramid-shaped balloons test-launched Sept. 26 in Miami by researchers and students are several feet tall and carry a palm-sized package of electronics and a transmitter that's a little bit longer than a pencil. Researchers hope that by next hurricane season, hundreds of balloons could be launched as a research flotilla sending back data when a storm threatens in the Atlantic.

Currently, scientists have a limited amount of data about atmospheric conditions over the ocean. With hundreds of balloons launched from the southeastern coast of the United States and Caribbean islands, they could fill a data gap, scientists say. With a few years of testing, researchers hope the data could dramatically improve the three-, four- and five-day predictions of the path of a storm, meaning better predictions of where storms will hit and reducing the miles of coastline that must be evacuated.

Tim Lachenmeier, who helped design the balloons for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was teaching University of Miami students how to launch them. He said balloons are becoming popular again as scientific tools.

"People like to say balloons are not rocket science, but we support a lot of rocket science," he said.

The idea isn't to send the balloons directly into storms but to have them probe the winds hundreds of miles around them: winds that steer a hurricane and determine its course.