A burst of excited chatter filled the air as around 90 students from Kaci Heins’ sixth-grade Northland Preparatory Academy science classes waited for their launch window outside Hangar X3 at the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport.
Heins and her eight-member launch crew carefully held the giant, helium-filled weather balloon and its payload: a small, airtight box decked out with a GPS device, cameras, a radio transmitter, temperature and pressure sensors, ultraviolet-measuring beads, a parachute, student artwork and a tiny plastic Lego astronaut.
“Let it go, let it go,” sang a boisterous group of students.
“We’ve had months of planning trying to make this happen,” Heins said.
Science Foundation Arizona provided a grant for Flagstaff students to conduct weather balloon launches for three years, but when the grant ran out, Heins had to find another funding source.
She was able to get a grant from NASA Explorer Schools to pay for the balloon and the full tank of helium it would take to carry it into the stratosphere.
At around 9:15 a.m. Friday morning, it was finally time to set the balloon free. Air traffic control gave the OK and Jack Crabtree, president of the nonprofit group Arizona Near Space Research, signaled for two of the students to release a pair of small pilot balloons.
Then the countdown began.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One.”
A collective cheer went through the crowd as Heins loosened her grip, allowing the balloon to soar out of sight.
“We worked for like three weeks together just getting everything ready and programming everything,” said Northland Prep sixth-grader and launch team member Madelynn Kaiser. “We worked really hard testing, video taping, taking pictures, and then we finally got to launch today. It’s just a really cool opportunity and experience for all of us.”
RECOVERED IN TREES
After the launch, the students headed back to school to monitor readings from the balloon’s radio transmitter and GPS device.
“The GPS is one of the most important parts of it,” said Northland Prep sixth-grader and launch team member Theo Mapatis. “If we don’t have the GPS, we can’t see where it burst or where it lands, so we couldn’t find it again.”
An Arizona Near Space Research chase team followed the balloon’s path with the help of the Coconino Amateur Radio Club. Bruce Sidlinger, a local entrepreneur specializing in aeronautics, provided air support from his camera-outfitted personal airplane.
The chase team tracked the balloon for roughly two hours until it finally came to rest back on Earth. They recovered it in a group of trees near Ashurst Lake, about 23 miles southeast of the airport. Before it popped, the weather balloon had climbed to 86,656 feet — more than 16 miles — recording video and gathering data on pressure and temperature changes in the atmosphere along the way.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
When the students return from Spring Break in a little over a week, Heins will have them analyze the data to see how the pressure increased and the temperature plummeted as the balloon rose through the two lowest layers of the atmosphere. It will be the culmination of a lesson she has been teaching them on weather and climate.
“We like to compare and contrast,” Heins said. “Those are big things in our curriculum.”
The students will also check on several sensors that are designed to turn red as they are exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Each sensor was covered with a different SPF-level sunscreen, then affixed to the outside of the payload and the Lego man.
“I hope that we’ll be able to see what kind of sunscreen works better from closer to the sun at 80,000 feet,” said Northland Prep sixth-grader and launch team member Isaiah Hanson.
Heins said the time her students invest in the weather balloon launch every year and the real-world data they are able to gather make it a truly unique experience.
“I think this program has the biggest impact on the kids out of all the things that I’ve done,” Heins said. “There’s nothing like watching a balloon take off with something they’ve created.”
Michelle McManimon can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2261.