Not just hot air: Francine Delany students get soaring results with weather-balloon project

Image 1. Up into the sky: Students from Francine Delany New School release a weather balloon on a mission to near-space. Photo by Bill Rhodes.
Image 2. Way up in the atmosphere: A still from the weather balloon’s camera just before its descent. Photo from Near-space Balloon Project.

On Saturday, Oct. 27, a group of middle-school students from Francine Delany New School launched a weather balloon with a camera into near space. The payload, packed in a Styrofoam cooler with some insulation and padding, consisted of some seeds (to see if radiation would affect them), a few personal items and a GPS unit. After about 90 minutes, the balloon burst and the payload returned to earth.

Computer models had predicted that the landfall would be north of Winston-Salem near Mount Airy, N.C., and within an hour of launch, student search teams had fanned out, tracking the GPS signal. Conflicting information led some teams on a fruitless search of the Wilson Creek area in Linville Gorge, and it was feared the cargo was lost.

By Sunday morning, however, all the trackers had agreed on a fix north of Boone, near the Tennessee line. Student Caleb Barber and teacher Tom Robertson found the cooler sitting on the ground "like someone had just set it there," said Robertson. "It was behind some heavy mountain laurel bushes," noted Barber, "but it was right off the trail."

Asheville Pizza and Brewing screened the video Oct. 29. Students, parents, teachers and supporters cheered the balloon’s progress as it delivered sweeping views of Asheville before hitting the clouds. Higher up, there was a great view of Hurricane Sandy's outer bands. The sky turned to space color, with the curvature of the Earth clearly visible.

But the most dramatic part was the last few moments. The balloon burst (as they must, due to pressure) and the camera caught the spiral down. Apparently, the shredded balloon got tangled in the parachute’s shrouds, preventing it from opening.

How high did the balloon get? "We don't really know yet,” said Tom Heck, lead volunteer on the project. “GPS stops recording altitude at 30,000 feet, but we’re sending the images to NASA; they should be able to figure that for us.”

The video, he added, “is fantastic: Everyone should see this."  — Bill Rhodes

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