P-O Students Launch Weather Balloon as Part of Class Project

(Photo provided by Dina Cipriano)

PHILIPSBURG – From the Philipsburg Area High School baseball field to space and back — one class project goes the distance to provide a unique look at the region from 70,000 feet above.

Inspired by a similar project at MIT, Randy Edelman, a junior high technology education teacher, began planning last year to launch a weather balloon into space.

“We were afraid it was going to go right into the trees and pop,” Edelman said. 

But the balloon did just the opposite and captured hundreds of stunning aerial photos of the region and of the curvature of the earth. The project provided students with a unique learning experience at no cost to the district. The McDonald’s in Philipsburg generously contributed $500 for materials through a MAC grant.

P-O began a partnership with Penn State University through the CarbonEARTH grant, which provided additional support. Penn State graduate fellow Seth Wilberding assisted in planning for the project. In class, students discussed weather patterns and predictions and began making their calculations for the balloon’s flight, taking such things as altitude, pressure and climate into consideration. The students involved in the project were 7th and 8th graders who participated in an independent study class. 

“There was a lot of classroom work involved,” Edelman said, noting that students calculated ascent rate and descent rate and discussed why helium was used.

Attached to the balloon was a cooler containing a cell phone with GPS and a router antenna attached for an added signal. The cooler also contained a digital camera, reprogrammed to automatically take photos every 12 seconds, and a couple of hand-warming packs to help ensure the equipment would sustain the cooler temperatures in space. A parachute was attached to the balloon above the cooler, painted bright orange and containing instructions for anyone who might retrieve it after flight. A $40 reward was offered.

Before launching, Edelman filed the proper paperwork with the Federal Aviation Administration, a requirement for weather balloons.

In late May, the team tested the equipment at the high school baseball field by tethering the balloon with a long rope. There were some technical difficulties with the phone. (As it turned out later, it had simply run out of minutes!) And the camera didn’t take as many photos as expected (a larger memory card was needed). 

Then came launch day – June 2 — and there was much excitement. Conditions were windy, however, and the first concern was getting the balloon above the trees. A team of teachers assisted – Greg Hubler was enroute on I-80, ready to retieve the cooler. John Bober and Cory Wood stopped by the baseball field to assist with the launch, and Mrs. Robin Stewart and both Mr. Wilberding and Paul Munson — CarbonEARTH graduate fellows from Penn State — were on site. Each student assisted with a task on launch day. 

When the timing was right, the balloon was set free and it took just a matter of minutes for it to escape out of sight. Students and teachers watched the balloon’s pattern on a laptop, using the GPS and InstaMapper. At approximately 6,000 feet, the phone in the cooler stopped transmitting, and teachers lost sight of the balloon. The phone started transmitting again, however, on the descent and thus, it was relatively easy to track the whereabouts of the cooler after it landed.

During flight, the balloon captured hundreds of stunning photos of the region and the curvature of the earth. I-99, Route 322, Mid-State Airport, Philipsburg, State College, Lewistown and similar landmarks are clearly visible in the photos.

The cooler landed in a tree, approximately 60 feet above, on a property in Newport, PA.

“We ended up with 344 pictures, about the last 80 pictures were of the tree,” Edelman said. “It was 72 minutes in the air.”

The landowner was contacted and he was very helpful, allowing the teachers access to retrieve the cooler. The tree was too small to climb, so Mr. Bober used a sling shot with a golf ball.

On the fourth attempt, the cooler came down — its final parachuted ride.

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