Benjamin Raikes and the 6th Grade visited Black Rock Forest to launch a balloon into outer space. I was relaying this to a friend and he asked “Where is the blog post?” So I asked Ben to be my first guest blogger. Here is his full account of his experience! Keep reading to get the complete instructions so you class can do this too!
High Ball One
Last week we launched a balloon to space! Well, near space, anyway. Twenty miles high. High enough for the sky to be black, not blue. Not only that, but we sent a video camera up to record the journey. We tracked it using a GPS and collected the rig when it floated down on its parachute 100 miles away.
There’s footage of it going up too. Through the clouds at about 6000ft, then on up to 104,000ft where it bursts. That’s what you just saw. Then it careers down again through the thin atmosphere. A few more minutes exist of this 100mph fall, and then we run out of memory on the camera’s chip. We hadn’t thought of that! We were worried the batteries would not perform at such cold temperatures. Our sensor read -53.6ºc. And that wasn’t at the highest altitude. It’s warmer there at a balmy -20ºc. No, the cold zone is around about 15,000meters. Who knew? Well, meteorologists and climate scientists did. And now we did. 6th grade. We really knew it and can show you the graphs we made.
The two lines are because the balloon went up and down, of course. Look, I hope I’ve convinced you that this is a good project. And it’s really not that hard to achieve if you are relatively determined.
Here’s what we did
First we registered with the Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC) (https://www.balloonchallenge.org/). This is an invaluable resource and definitely the first place to go if you are considering this project. There are tutorials on every aspect of the process, as well as an excellent forum where you can ask questions and get replies from experienced balloonists. My students watched videos, read threads on the discussion forum, were fascinated by the map of teams taking part and thrilled when our school was added.
This wonderful site (http://predict.habhub.org/), based in Cambridge, England, enabled us to plan our launch location. At least to begin with, you can use the default settings of a burst height of 30,000m and an ascent and descent rate of 5m/s. The site will trace out the flight path and calculate the time of flight. We did this everyday for at least two months, altering the launch position as we became more familiar with local winds. We would record the daily landings on a google map, as well as pinning them on a large ‘operations room’ map in the classroom. We became very aware of the variability of the winds, both in strength and direction. Had we launched for real, on many days our balloon would have landed in the Atlantic! Some days the predicted flight path twisted and turned, teaching us that there was great variation in the winds at different altitudes.
After mapping our daily ‘launches’, we would try to find explanations for the flight path on http://earth.nullschool.net/ , a beautiful site which animates the worlds winds at different altitudes. We spent a lot of time exploring this model, looking for highest wind speeds, coldest temperatures, weather fronts and hurricanes. I believe that interacting with this excellent simulation really added to our understanding of the complexity of air movement at different altitudes.
We decided to purchase an off-the-shelf kit from http://www.highaltitudescience.com/. This is currently offered for $700 if you choose a 600g balloon. The larger the balloon, the higher it can go. Since it was our first try, we wanted to be really confident in our equipment. See GSBC’s list of supplies https://www.balloonchallenge.org/supplies and their suggestions for cutting costs https://www.balloonchallenge.org/cost. If you are confident with an Arduino, you might save money by making your own flight computer.
We bought a relatively expensive GoPro camera with an extra battery pack, but there are cheaper options available. Some teams use old phones!
When we added the $300 camera, the $300 charge for renting the large helium tank from the party supplies store, the lithium batteries and memory cards, as well as the cost of renting a bus to take the whole of the 6th grade to the launch site, we were around the $2000 mark. We had to persuade the school that this was worth it! It is a lot of money. In the classroom I have a display illustrating the things scientists do – ask questions, observe, experiment, hypothesize etc. One of the parents, who is a scientist, said, “you forgot ‘apply for grants’”! So as a homework assignment, I asked the students to put together a ‘pitch’ to the senior management team. They had to respond to these prompts: Do you want to launch a space balloon? Give some reasons. Have you learnt anything from the project so far? What are the educational benefits for you in taking part in this project? They made a very persuasive case!
Then, in pairs, they worked these answers into a power point presentation. It was a useful exercise in thinking about their own learning, as well as creating an opportunity for scientific writing for a reason. The funders were eventually persuaded.
The 6th grade Makers club, an after school group, took care of this. It was not too difficult and provided another opportunity for the children to be involved in this hands-on project.
Practice using the GPS
We used a Spot GPS system that came with the High Altitude Science kit. It is normally used as a theft prevention device. Once you activate it and register, anyone with the password can follow it on line. We had fun giving it to different students each night and guessing from the readings who had it. Children loaded the app onto their phones so that they would be able to track it on the day of the launch.
As we watched Habhub’s flight predictions every day, we became increasingly anxious about wind conditions on the launch day. We knew we would not be able to be flexible once we had chosen a day. School trips have to be booked weeks in advance. Could we influence the burst altitude? And the ascent rate? What was a realistic descent rate? All of these questions we took to the forum and always received prompt, helpful advice. In particular we were directed to Habhub’s burst calculator, which enabled us to tinker around with different amounts of helium and see how that affected the flight path.
Filing with Federal Aviation Authority
I was filled with anxiety about this part. The Federal Aviation Authority’s regulations are quite intimidating http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div5&node=14:18.104.22.168.15.
We were extremely lucky that the parent who had brought our attention to this project also happened to have a pilot’s licence. He wrapped his head around the regulations and filed the Notam (Notice to Airmen) – the official notification of your flight plan. He reported that the FAA was extremely helpful and supportive. Don’t be put off by this!
Booked trip with contingency plan
We booked the bus and the lunches a month before the launch day. What would happen if the winds were in the wrong direction on the day? Or if the cloud cover prohibited a launch? To a certain extent, we had been trying to manage the students expectations all along. This was a real science project with genuinely uncontrollable variables like .. the weather! Even NASA has to wait for the right conditions. We knew we could not cancel the trip and rearrange it at short notice. If conditions were suitable for launching but our flight predictor put the landing in the sea, we decided we would reduce the burst altitude by putting in more helium. This would reduce the time in the air and the distance of flight. We would not get such interesting data or images, but at least the children would see the launch.
A week before the launch date, we could start see HabHub’s predictions for our day. It looked like we were going to be lucky!
Let’s hand this over to a student and a parent.
The following is a student’s account of the day:
The sixth grade for the first time in The School at Columbia’s history, launched a balloon, from Black Rock Forest’s Reservoir, that went 104,000 feet, 31,000 meters into space. The balloon traveled very far. It landed in someone’s backyard in Western Massachusetts, where parents retrieved it. Here is how the day at Black Rock went:
8:00-8:15 Sixth Graders arrive in advisories, hopefully prepared for the trip to Black Rock.
8:15-8:30 Discuss plan in advisories for the day. Start boarding the bus.
8:30 Make sure everybody is on the bus and ready to go. (We had to wait a bit for Mr. Ryder to come).
8:45-10:30 Finally leave school. Arrive at Black Rock an hour and forty-five minutes later.
10:45-12:00 While Mr. Raikes, Mr. Ryder, some of the Maker Club, and some others help set up the balloon, everybody else hikes somewhere and eats lunch. The choices are: Mount Misery (The one that is very steep), Black Rock Mountain (The one that is easier than Mount Misery, but the blazes for the trails are confusing) and The Leisure Hike around the Reservoir (The one people go on if they are hurt or if they want to do some artwork).
12:00-12:15 Everybody gathers at the Reservoir, and takes videos or watches as Mr. Raikes, Mr. Ryder, some of the Maker Club, and the others help set up the balloon.
12:15-12:30 Everybody makes the last preparations for the launch, including filling up the balloon.
12:36 Everybody counts down from ten, ending at zero.
12:36:30 When everybody get to zero, everybody who is holding the balloon, lets it fly.
12:36:31-12:45 Everybody tracks the balloon with their eyes and takes a video of it.
12:45-1:30 The sixth graders have recess, and tracks the balloon on their phones. Parents chasing the balloon go out and get it.
1:30-3:15 Everybody gets back on the bus and heads back, some still tracking.
1:40 Everybody tracking the balloon, loses contact, because it is too high for the GPS.
2:40 People tracking regain contact with the balloon, which means it has burst.
3:15 Everybody arrives back at school, looking at the GPS application or website.
3:23 The GPS says stop, which means the balloon has landed.
3:30 The students leave the school.
3:50 The parents hunting the balloon find it in someone’s backyard, they get it back, with all the data.
4:30 The sixth grade discovers via email that the balloon has been discovered.
And this is by Jeff Tarr, the parent who was so instrumental in this whole project:
I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. In elementary school my teachers told me to imagine being an astronaut and then write about it since New Yorkers don’t become astronauts. Thirty years later I found myself sitting in The School at Columbia University’s science office brainstorming fun projects to do with Mr. Ben Raikes, and other faculty members, when I threw out a crazy idea: “Lets launch a camera to outer space, have it take a picture, and then safely return to us.”
After some laughter and bewilderment from the group, Mr. Raikes turned to me and seriously asked how. With my best poker face, since I had never done this before and had no idea how to even attempt it, I said we just needed a weather balloon, some helium, and a camera. That didn’t scare the group so they agreed to start thinking about it.
After a few weeks we had come up with many excellent reasons on why this in fact was a great idea. Everything from the educational value of pulling off a space mission to the spectacle of it. There was only one problem: the jet stream. We realized that New York City is situated such that it is practically guaranteed that anything launched would be blown easterly into the Atlantic Ocean. For six months we ran wind models all giving the same disastrous result.
Despite the jet stream, we carried on and figured out how to build a space rig, how to outfit it with sensors, determined the proper type of camera, found a source for helium, learned how to file our plans with the FAA to alert airplanes, put together lesson plans for the kids, and much much more.
One week before launch the winds started to shift in a way we hadn’t ever seen; they started turning towards the north! Three days before launch the forecast was looking great: the balloon would travel north by north east and land in Massachusetts. The mission had a chance!
My heart was now set on a successful mission. It was absolutely imperative that we had a safe space rig and thought out procedures for the pre-flight, launch, during-flight, and recovery phases of the mission. I started losing sleep. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to study our flight path predictions. It seemed to me that we’d either land in the middle of a thick forest, on top of Mt. Washington, or in a giant lake or river. Sometimes I’d wake with visions of parachute failures causing the space rig to rip a hole in someone’s roof.
Launch day came. I volunteered to bring the helium tank to our launch site and to also lead the recovery mission. My truck was filled with everything we might need for recovery: flashlights, wading gear, raft, fishing rod, fishing line, bow and arrow (to shoot fishing line through the rig to pull it out of a tree), hack saws, chain saw, red bull, beef jerky, an internet hotspot, and three laptops (one to track the realtime GPS signal from the balloon, one to show updated wind predictions, and one showing real time roadway traffic conditions). Growing up in New York City did not make me qualified to use any of this outdoor equipment, but that didn’t stop me. I also wore bright orange so that we’d be easy to spot in thick forest areas.
En route to the launch site our GPS navigation told us to drive through a tunnel that was not wide enough for our car. Luckily we stopped before we became wedged inside it and then we tried to find another way around. Accidentally, we ended up driving into a Military & Department of Defense camping site near West Point. Lets just say, it took a lot of explaining to the officers why three middle-aged men had a truck full of random things of questionable nature. Luckily they were just as excited as we were and gladly directed us to our destination and wished us a safe flight.
During the pre-launch sequence I was tasked with measuring the amount of helium placed in the balloon. Mr. Raikes had already figured out how much we needed in order to reach 90,000 feet. However, I had other plans. On my own I had calculated how much we needed to hit 103,000 feet – which was the previous record height for a school in the USA. So, I used my computed amount of helium without telling anyone. Our pre-launch checklist was completed, we determined we were safe for flight, the sixth graders counted down and we let the balloon go.
After seeing High Ball 1 climb out of sight I jumped into the truck and took off. With two other parents we set course to the north east. Two hours later we found ourselves in the quiet town of Williamsburg, MA. We pulled up to a house close to where High Ball 1 should be and knocked on the door. Nobody was home. We tried the neighbor’s house. He was home, we explained what we were doing and asked that he escort us through the yard. He agreed and we started outside.
As we approached the house’s fence I heard the space rig’s locator beeper. I ran towards it. I jumped over a very high fence. I kept running towards a very daunting looking forest mentally preparing myself to use the bow and arrow or chainsaw. At the edge of the yard, just shy of the forest, sat High Ball 1 in perfect condition. She had travelled approximately 100 miles and climbed to approximately 104,500 feet. New Yorkers can break records going to space after all. After many hugs and high fives and pictures with all the neighbors, who came over hearing our excitement, we got back in the truck and headed home.
My sincere thanks and appreciation go out to everyone involved with amazing project: Ben Raikes, Dylan Ryder, Lisbeth Uribe, Amy Eguchi, Hilary Szanto, Karen Blumberg, Pablo Zatz, Amani Reed, Jeremy Roberts, Eric Miller, everyone at Black Rock Forest and the TSCU Sixth Grade (class of 2021).