WILMETTE – A curiosity for what lies beyond inspired sixth graders from Sunset Ridge School in Northfield to create a weather balloon that launches near space.
More than a year ago, Ethan Hayes became interested in weather balloons after learning about them on the internet. “I got interested because I wanted to send something up near space and record some data,” Ethan told DailyNorthShore.
Hayes encouraged his friend Jack Fitzgerald to help him design a weather balloon, with the assistance of his father Bill Hayes. “I (wanted to get) pictures from near space. Anything from near space (is) cool to me,” Jack said.
Through trial and error, the boys designed and launched three weather balloons — two successful and one that crashed immediately — recording pictures of black space and the curvature of the Earth.
Weather balloons are essentially helium balloons that carry a camera — or some type of electronic device that will record images or sounds — in what’s called a payload, that is attached to the balloon. A tracker measures the longitude, latitude and altitude of the balloon and sends down those coordinates. The tracker also indicates where the weather balloon ultimately lands.
In the boys’ third attempt, they launched the weather balloon a whopping 96,000 feet into the air. But Ethan and Jack decided they wanted to launch a weather balloon even higher, and enlisted four other friends to help them design one that would go at least 100,000 feet.
Since then, the group has been working hard on creating a weather balloon that they plan to launch over Memorial Day weekend, if all goes as planned. Forces beyond their control, such as foul weather or winds, could force the group to changes their plans.
The kids are divided in half, with Jack leading a technology focused group and Ethan leading a group focused on the structural design of the balloon. Jack said his group had to figure out the technology — they plan to include an iPod in the payload to record sound — and determine how much helium is needed to get sufficient lift. Ethan’s group is focused on designing the payload to hold the electronics, as well as designing the line that connects the balloon to a parachute that allows for a safe landing.
Carter Dernulc said the group decided to play songs on an iPod from the weather balloon to see if sound changes in space, versus how it sounds on the ground. The camera in the payload will record the music and take pictures.
The group will launch from the same site as the three previous launches, Freedom Park in Lowell, Indiana. Bill Hayes said they chose this site because of its distance from Lake Michigan and any airports. In the previous launches, the balloons have landed about 50 miles east of the park in a field.
The group relies on a weather balloon website that projects where the balloon is likely to go and calculates the effect of winds. The group begins to look at the site about a week in advance, but Hayes said it is most accurate the day before they plan to launch.
The weather balloon designed by this larger group of kids is different than the three previously launched by Jack and Ethan. This time the weather balloon will play music and the camera will be facing up at the balloon to capture a picture of it popping or deploying the parachute. The group hopes these pictures will help them to understand what, if anything, may have gone wrong.
The kids all say that they’ve learned a lot about science and also trial and error. “It’s interesting that in all the long term preparation that the things I thought would be simple could effect the entire launch of the balloon,” remarked Ilana Freidel. Carter agreed, saying “I was surprised that if one simple thing didn’t go right the whole launch could go wrong.”
For example, in previous launches, they forgot to turn on the video to record or didn’t use enough helium to successfully launch the balloon.
The students also enjoyed the camaraderie of working with a larger group on the project. “We have a lot more ideas because a lot more people are contributing and giving thoughts,” Ethan said.
The group named the weather balloon “Apollo 100K” after the Apollo space mission and because they hope to reach 100,000 feet. As for their future goals? They plan to wait and see whether or not this launch is successful.