Wood River Students launch balloon into ‘near space’


 By Harold Reutter, Grand Island Independent

WOOD RIVER — For middle school and elementary students in Wood River, a launch into near space is as exciting as a launch into orbit around the earth.

Middle school students launched a hydrogen-filled balloon late Wednesday morning with a payload that included a video camera in a box and a second payload that was a box containing a number of student-designed experiments.

Ken Schroeder, deputy director for the Strategic Air and Space Museum, had a couple of middle school students explain two of the experiments to the elementary students — and more than a few adult Wood River residents — who had gathered to watch the lift-off of the balloon and its cargo.

Gavin Jackson said one experiment was putting hydrogen peroxide and baking soda in the stem of a flower, with the goal of seeing what effect those ingredients might have on the plant in the conditions of near space.

Trey Zessin said the payload also included several batteries — Schroeder later specified that they were AAA batteries — and seeing what impact near space has on those batteries. Students will do that by hooking up the batteries that made to the trip to near space to a volt meter and seeing how many volts they can generate. They also will hook up AAA batteries that have remained on Planet Earth to see how many volts they can generate.

When Schroeder asked other students about the conditions in near space, one boy said that the atmospheric pressure was a lot less in near space and another said near space is much colder than the temperatures on the earth’s surfaces.

Schroeder affirmed that both students were correct and added that temperatures in near space could be anywhere from 60 below zero to 90 below zero. As for the atmospheric pressure, Schroeder told the crowd that was the condition that was going to cause the hydrogen balloon to burst. He said that as the balloon keeps rising, it continues to expand as the atmospheric pressure drops. Eventually, that expansion causes the balloon to pop, with the payload returning to earth.

Schroeder said the craft should rise to 70,000 to 90,000 feet above the earth’s surface before the balloon breaks.

Initially, the entire craft “will drop like a rock,” Schroeder told the crowd. He explained that the balloon and its payload have a parachute, but he said the chute would not immediately open because the air particles are spaced so far apart. As the near-space craft continues to plummet, the air molecules eventually become close enough together to provide enough resistance for the parachute to deploy.

The balloon was also equipped with a GPS unit that will continually “ping” tracking equipment on the ground, Schroeder said. As a result, adults connected to the Space Camp and the middle school students created a two-vehicle chase team to retrieve the parachute, the burst balloon, the GPS system and, most important of all, the two payload systems, which included the container with the camera and the container with the student-designed experiments.

The estimated flight time was 1.5 hours: One hour for the balloon to reach near space and 30 minutes for everything to return to earth.

Before launching the balloon, the students had found out about atmospheric and wind conditions so that they could predict that the near-space aircraft may land somewhere near Sutton.

Schroeder said one outreach by the Strategic Air and Space Museum is trying to bring more high-quality science experiences to students in rural Nebraska. As a result, the organization has had Space Camps from Omaha to Chadron and from Norfolk to Imperial.

The Space Camp for elementary students ran from Monday through Wednesday, while the Space Camp for middle school students was scheduled from Monday through Friday. Schroeder said at least part of Thursday will be completing the student-designed experiments that reached near space.

Schroeder said one thing the Space Camp does really well is to bring all parts of STEM education together. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. “Too often, science is over here, technology is here and engineering and math are also separate,” he said. However, students had to use skills from all those disciplines for the Space Camp.

For example, the box with the camera weighed 5 pounds and the box containing the science experiments weighed 1.5 pounds. The calculation was that the balloon would need 1.5 pounds of “lift” for every pound of payload. So the math equation was 6.5 times 1.5, which is 9.75 pounds. The Space Camp adult filling the balloon said he would give it 11 pounds of lift just to ensure the craft would reach its near-space destination.

Real learning was going on at the Space Camp, which still managed to be fun for the students.

“Too many people have forgotten that learning is fun,” Schroeder said.