Inspiring Younger Students with Near-Space Balloons

On Sunday, my school’s Physics Club launched their third annual near-space balloon. It was a fantastic success this year. Our first year, we simply focused on launching and retrieving our payload with photos and videos. Last year, we focused on gathering data (temperature, pressure, radiation). This year, we focused on inspiring younger students in our school district.

High school students in Physics Club contacted former teachers at the elementary and middle schools and asked if they would be interested in collaborating on the design and construction of an experiment to be launched to the edge of space. Four schools accepted the challenge. The high school students visited the classroom to introduce the project and followed up with additional visits in person or via video conferencing.

The ideas generated by the younger scientists were amazing. One elementary classroom wanted to see what would happen to Jello and popcorn throughout the flight. Another explored the effect of pressure on Peeps and sealed rubber duckies containing water or air. One classroom painted craft sticks with nail polish that changes color based on temperature and UV radiation. Another put condiment packages in a payload and filmed them throughout the launch. The final experiment was testing how a battery powered light changes throughout the flight.

We launched from a new location this year to provide a greater buffer between the predicted landing zone and the no-fly zone around Chicago due to the NATO summit. We didn’t want a F-16 shooting down our experiments. We experienced a near-failure due to under filling the 3000-g balloon, but we recovered and had a successful launch. Due to a grant we received from our district’s educational foundation, we were able to purchase new equipment so we could track the balloon throughout the flight. We installed an APRS transmitter on the balloon that sends GPS coordinates over the HAM radio band. This signal is picked up by repeater stations throughout the area as well as by our own rig which we interfaced to a computer to map the location of the balloon. It was quite a different dynamic this year as we knew the location of the balloon every minute. We hung out in a McDonalds and tracked the balloon; the whole group cheered when we passed 100,000 feet. You can export the tracking data from aprs.fi and display it in Google Earth.

Flight path

The balloon reached a maximum altitude of 105,330 feet (~20 miles) and the flight lasted 2 hours and 34 minutes. Here is the video of the flight:

We also created an album that contains videos of the preparation for the launch and the analysis of each school’s experiment after the launch.

This year’s project would not have been possible without the support and efforts of many people. The Naperville Education Foundation, Space for All, Adler Planetarium, and W9BKO. In addition, several science teachers from my school contributed and alumni with much needed expertise assisted. Finally, the classroom teachers who accepted the challenge of this project late in the school year made it an amazing experience for all of us.

If you are interested in launching a near-space balloon and have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. My colleague and I have presented our tips for launching your own near-space ballon which you may also find helpful.

2 thoughts on “Inspiring Younger Students with Near-Space Balloons

  1. John Burk

    Geoff, I love this, and want to thank you publicly for all you did to help our space balloon efforts. I especially like the idea of having elementary school students design experiments to carry onboard the ballon. It’s a wonderful the NASA program that invites students to submit ideas for experiments on board the space station.

    This project is so rich that I think you should try to share it even more broadly than this blog—have you thought about writing an article for NSTA about it?

    Reply
    1. geoff Post author

      John, I would never have considered writing an article about this. My colleague and I will look into it. Thanks for the encouragement!

      Reply

Leave a Reply