Students launch high-altitude research balloon
December 10, 2008

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Students in Dr. Stephen Barnett’s weather studies class traded the warmth of a lab for the cold, rainy outdoors in mid-November to gain hands-on experience with atmospheric observations.

Dr. Barnett said the class launched a high-altitude research balloon to take a variety of measurements and to capture video images as it ascended to a maximum of 90,000 feet and traveled more than 130 miles before landing in a remote area in Southwest Virginia, 35 miles northwest of Kingsport, Tenn. Wind speeds in excess of 175 mph were recorded by instruments in the balloon’s data pods.

“This was part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative to increase interest in science, engineering, and technology,” he said. “The students, who are not science majors, were learning the whole scientific process, forming a hypothesis, designing and performing an experiment, then interpreting the data.”

Sophomore communication studies major Josh Davis said the project did pique his interest in science, at least weather science, but said Dr. Barnett’s enthusiasm is even more infectious. “His presentation does something for me,” he said. “The balloon experiment showed me a usable aspect of taking science and making it ours. Ordinarily I have little interest in studying humidity in the atmosphere. But getting to see it in action was very cool. If I’m free next semester, I want to do it again.”

Dr. Barnett was invited to participate in the project beginning with a workshop this past summer at Taylor University. Taylor also sent two researchers from their educational psychology department to evaluate the effectiveness of the ballooning project in science education.

Conditions deteriorated the day of the launch, in more ways than one. “Our predictive tracking software crashed, so we had to work from what was predicted the day before,” Dr. Barnett explained. Because they did not have current data, the landing site was more than 50 miles away from the predicted point. “We had such thick clouds and turbulence that the tracking equipment lost contact with the balloon several times. The winds were so strong aloft that one instrument pod was destroyed. That had never happened in scores of launches that the Taylor group had been involved in.”

Kesse Robinson, a sophomore English/education major, said she learned something of a life lesson, not just science, because of the experiment. “I learned that preparing ahead of time, especially for mistakes, is essential, and that when something goes wrong, having a bad attitude won't help, while a good attitude makes the whole project fun.”

The science department “invested a substantial sum in equipment,” buying cameras, radios, and meteorological instruments which—except for those unexpectedly lost—can be reused in subsequent experiments. “It’s like rocket science, only cheaper,” Dr. Barnett said. In addition to the initial investment, each launch costs between $300 and $400, with most of the expense for helium and the balloon, which bursts at the peak of its ascent.

In the spring, Bryan students expect to participate in HALO-2, a collaborative high-altitude research project with several universities across the United States. Multiple balloons will be launched simultaneously to test prototype emergency communication networks and to sample the uppermost atmosphere over a very wide area.