Sheridan students launch high-altitude balloon through NASA program

University of Wyoming student Philip Bergmaier inflates a weather balloon at Holy Name Catholic School in Sheridan for an experiment Thursday, March, 7, 2019. Holy Name students attached various items to the balloon in sealed boxes to study the effects of high-altitude flight. (Photo by Matthew Gaston, The Sheridan Press)

By Ryan Patterson

The Sheridan Press

Via Wyoming News Exchange

SHERIDAN — More than 100 students and teachers counted down in anticipation March 7 at Holy Name Catholic School. When the countdown finished, a high-altitude balloon flew into the sky, gradually disappearing from eyesight for a few minutes until it was no longer visible.

The balloon stayed airborne for three hours and 22 minutes and reached an altitude of 96,033.46 feet. It eventually landed northwest of Hulett in New Haven after traveling 102.1 miles.

That day marked the second launch in recent years at Holy Name and the first since 2015. Holy Name science teacher Emily Emond said this year’s eighth-graders remembered the previous launch and wanted to do it again.

After the students expressed interest, Emond reached out to the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium. The program provided the balloon, GPS and other flight materials this year and in 2015. The equipment takes video of the flight and measures the balloon’s altitude, location, temperature, wind speed and air pressure, among other calculations.

Emond and her eighth-grade students attached various items to the balloon in sealed boxes known as payloads. The items included vegetable seeds, UV beads that change color with different light exposure and Beyblades, popular childhood toys for many of the eighth-graders.

Emond and the students will study the vegetable seeds afterward to see if the high altitude impacted their growing ability. They will plant most of them in the school garden and compare them to seeds that weren’t in the launch.

Holy Name eighth-graders Zach Luedtke, Jake Woodrow, Aiden Roth, Henri Schaefer and Dakota Armstrong helped launch the balloon and carried three different payloads attached to the bottom of the whitish-gray balloon.

They chose to include Beyblades because of their importance during the students’ younger years.

“It’s something that’s so significant throughout the whole childhood,” Schaefer said. “… We always used to bring them (to school).”

The five students also traveled with three members of the NASA consortium to retrieve the balloon in New Haven. Shortly after the launch, they hopped on Interstate 90, tracking the balloon’s location throughout the journey.

In 2015, the balloon reached an altitude of just over 101,000 feet, so the students hoped to reach a greater height this year. Weather conditions — about 20 degrees, little wind and no precipitation — seemed favorable to a high launch, but this year’s balloon came up just short.

The Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium began in 1989 to provide funding to universities and program related to increasing involvement in space and science. The high-altitude balloon launches started several years ago, and the program has a few other launches in Wyoming planned over the next two months.

Emond said the event will hopefully encourage students to become more interested in space. She said space can be a difficult concept to grasp, so the different data, calculations and video footage from the balloon should make it more real for students.

On the video, students received a better view of the curvature of Earth, the vast blackness of space and the intensity of the sun.

“Space is a really hard concept for kids; it’s hard for adults,” Emond said. “Anything that gets them a better idea of the atmosphere around us and our proximity to other objects that are around us I think is just a really good opportunity for them.”

The event provided a different way for students to learn, one that could result in greater enthusiasm and understanding of space.