Education Opinion

Launching a Weather Balloon, Learning Together

By Contributing Blogger — March 17, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Nadia Gloag, 9th Grade Student at the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in San Diego, CA.

Launching weather balloons the first semester of high school is not exactly common, but that was the challenge presented by our teachers when we started the school year in September. Our teachers had launched weather balloons before, so we had complete faith that, as adults, they knew what they were doing and would lead us through the process and to success. However, as our project got underway, we realized that our teachers had a different understanding of how the process would unfold. We were going to learn how to successfully launch these weather balloons together.

Our first step was to determine our balloon’s payload, which is everything you want to send up to the stratosphere and the chassis that carries it. It’s like the basket on a hot-air balloon, but instead of putting people in it, we were going to use it to carry cameras, GPS trackers, and some experiments. We asked our teachers what they had used as the payload on past weather balloons. We trusted that they had a good idea of what worked well. Imagine our surprise when they presented us with a small black lunchbox. How could we make sure our two GPSs were far enough apart so they wouldn’t interfere with each other? Could we even find a camera that would be able to shoot good footage on such a small chassis? Turns out our teachers didn’t really know what was best, they just provided a starting point. Our group of weather ballooners decided we needed a better chassis, so we designed a new one. We designed it on Adobe Illustrator and laser cut it out of a bit of whiteboard (see image below for our design). We were ready to start assembling the weather balloon.

As we prepared our balloon, our teachers shared with us a new launch predicting website they had found. No one had a clue how to work it, and with the new payload design our teachers did not readily have much of the information we would need. What would our new ascent rate be? It was yet another thing we were going to have to figure out together. I was beginning to realize that we shouldn’t blindly follow our teachers so much, because more often than not, we were learning how to do things with them, or even teaching them how to do it after we’d worked it out! We were nervous to make so many of our own decisions!

At last we were able to launch our weather balloon. When we got it back and retrieved the camera footage, it was amazing. The balloon had gotten high enough that you could see the curvature of the earth and the glow of the atmosphere radiating off into black space. When I saw the footage for the first time, I was in absolute awe that I was able to take part in getting footage that incredible. Me! Like... me!

I had never done anything so cool in my life, and I wanted to do it again, and I wanted to get even cooler footage. We contacted another teacher and asked to borrow a 360 camera for our next launch. How cool would it be to be able to rotate the perspective on a video of the ascent? I wanted to launch right away, but fate had other plans. Since we live at the southwest-most point of the country, we have to make sure the weather balloon won’t fly either south into Mexico or west into the Pacific Ocean, but those were the only places the wind was blowing at the time. There were no good launch days. We checked every day, but no opportunities arose. It was incredibly frustrating!

Our teachers pushed us to think about how to make the best of our planning time, so we added a few more items to our payload. When we eventually launched (on the last day possible), our balloon’s payload consisted of two GPSs, a 360 camera, an arduino to track altitude and wind speed, and three slides of tardigrades to see how they would react to the stratosphere. The launch went less than smoothly. We had to delay launch for a few hours due to rain, and then we realized we had not tested our method for attaching the camera. Luckily, one of our group members found the tripod that came with it, and our teacher helped us force it into the right place. With another problem solved, we managed to finally launch the balloon. Once it landed we went out to retrieve it, and ran into another snag. The balloon had landed on a mountain. In the snow. Up a tree. On private property. We had no way of getting to it, so, defeated, we returned to school without our weather balloon. We were very disappointed, and quite nervous because we had put a $500 camera on it that didn’t belong to us. Our teachers contacted the property owners and eventually drove back up the mountain to pick it up for us. Sadly, due to the recording frequency (six frames per second), and the fact that the chassis swings a lot, the camera footage we got was very blurry and nauseating. To make matters worse, all of our tardigrades died, but least we got the camera and the data from the arduino back!

The weather balloon project was the most life-changing, fun, stressful, inspirational, explorative, and amazing experience I have ever had. I am so glad that I was able to take part in it, and I can’t wait to do more with weather balloons. After all, a science or engineering project is never really complete. There are always new ways to improve, learn, and discover. I’m looking forward to redesigning the chassis to make it more stable and to give the camera a clearer view. This project also taught me what high school, and life, is going to be like in the future; moments of doubt and failure, minimal teacher guidance, having to make tricky decisions, and working with a group. In the end, launching our weather balloons was less about our teachers showing us how, and more about us figuring it out together.

Images courtesy of 2016 Fall Semester Delgado/Strong 9th Grade Class.

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