Weather studies balloon launch a success
December 16, 2009

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Bryan College Weather Studies students successfully launched, tracked, and recovered a high-altitude research balloon earlier this month. Their balloon relayed weather and position data as it passed 91,000 feet into the near-space region of the stratosphere, above 98% of the atmosphere.

Strong winds necessitated launching from Winchester, TN, west of Dayton, so that the balloon would not land in Smoky Mountain National Park. After a 105-mile flight, the instrument pods parachuted into a heavily wooded area north of Harriman, TN, and were caught high in a tree. Students used GPS coordinates to walk to the landing site and collect the instrument pods.

“This was the culmination of a long-term project that has data collection as its primary purpose; but the experience is about more than that,” said Dr. Stephen Barnett. “It involves considerable effort to do this successfully. Students have to plan experiments, organize themselves and assign tasks, assemble and modify equipment, practice launch and tracking techniques, test their equipment before launch, and attend to the many, many things that can and do go wrong. The experience is a taste of science in the real world. We are learning about the atmosphere; but we are also developing our abilities to organize, communicate, and cooperate. And it is fun, to boot.”

“Getting to launch a high-altitude research balloon was quite exciting," according to senior David Beisner.  "We got to get out of the classroom and the lab and actually do science. As part of our research we measured temperature, pressure, and humidity. Based on the information we received, we were able to determine the precise cloud positions and the levels of the different parts of the atmosphere.”

Dr. Barnett hopes to employ high-altitude ballooning in many of his classes because it can be used as a teaching and learning tool at many levels. “The balloon experience can be used in general survey courses or in upper-level science classes. It can also serve as an outreach for students in local schools and can even help develop an interest in science at any level.”

Balloon burst captured with onboard camera.


Thursday’s launch was a success in many ways, says Dr. Barnett. “We recovered the instruments, so we can do this again another day. We also have data that are being analyzed, as well as some very interesting still-camera images and video footage. One shot shows the balloon as it bursts, for instance. It was a good day, and I am very pleased with what my students were able to accomplish.”