Students at West Ranch High School prefer to conduct their experiments high up in the air, rather than safely on the ground.
For the fourth year, 30 students in the school’s astronomy program sent a High-Altitude Weather Balloon to the upper edges of the earth’s atmosphere.
“What’s really awesome about it is that it’s completely driven by students,” Astronomy Teachers Christine Hirst said. “They do everything from configuring it to filling it to programming it to setting up social media accounts to recovering it.”
Along with the balloon were a satellite communication system, spot radios, GoPro cameras and two payload boxes full of nine experiments to see how Jell-O, bubblegum, blood, frozen water bottles, watches and even a goldfish react to the changing atmosphere and altitude.
Senior David Nelson said the two astronomy classes started to prepare for the project about a month ago. Students were placed into the mission control, payload, launch, recon and media teams were they were assigned to certain roles based on their interests.
“I’m interested in the stars and space in general,” said Nelson who was a member of the media team. “I knew about the project ahead of time and wanted to take this job title.”
Once the balloon was in the air, students on the recon time began to track it using Google Maps and the balloon’s live, online feed at http://tinyurl.com/wrhab.
“The recon team then gets the balloon,” junior and media team member Kayla Dizan said. “The drop point will be in Lancaster area.”
Once the balloon lands in Lancaster, it will be three times its original size and will, hopefully, still be intact. According to Hirst, the best part of the project is seeing her students take ownership of their work and become classroom leaders.
“It’s awesome to see them emerge as leaders, to own this project, to take complete accountability for it,” she said. “This is all them.”
In fact, the project began four years ago with one of Hirst’s students, Daniel Tikhomirov, asking if and how the class could collect cosmic dust accumulating on the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.
“I had a student that said ‘What if we just went up and got it?’” Hirst said. “I started researching it and found that it’s possible, but the only group that had done it was NASA.”
Despite the risks, both logistically and financially, Hirst committed to launching the balloon into space to answer Tikhomirov’s question.
“I committed to the project before we had the funding and I wrote a grant and it cost exactly how much I had in a deposit account for buying a house,” Hirst said. “I almost didn’t buy a house in lieu of doing the project. Fortunately I got the grant within days of losing that deposit.”
Now the project has continued to grow as students send up new experiments each year and complete projects only done before by NASA.
“Some kids want to learn about astronomy and the stars and other kids want to make this a career,” Dizan said. “It’s really fun and you get to make a whole other family and learn about space.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_