U students launch balloon to new heights

The balloon gathered weather data as a test run of the technology for future use.

Devin Henry

Students shivering in Saturday morning’s mid-30-degree temperatures needed only to look up for something destined for even colder temperatures.

University students participating in the Minnesota Space Grant Balloon Project launched a weather balloon the size of a car Saturday morning, bound for heights up to 90,000 feet and temperatures as low as -80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eight Midwest universities each launched a balloon simultaneously from sites around the region, the goal being to establish a telecommunications network.

James Flaten, associate director of the Minnesota Space Grant through the University, said the University did some ballooning a few years ago.

“Then it sort of went dormant,” he said, “so I restarted a ballooning program this past summer.”

“Basically, I’m trying to encourage the students to think broadly about what can be done with ballooning,” he said.

The Plan

The launch was a part of an initiative called the High-Altitude Launch Opportunity Network between Taylor University in Indiana and StratoStar Systems, a company whose president, Jason Krueger, is a Taylor alumnus.

“We want to allow students and government and industry the ability to operate in near space,” Krueger said. “One of the things we’re working on as a company is getting universities on board to do these kinds of launches.”

Krueger said creating a network of weather balloons lends itself to practical purposes.

“Potentially, you can send any kind of data through,” he said, citing information that could track the causes of global warming, or taking photos or video that could be used for national defense.

Saturday’s launch, where balloons remained airborne for three hours, gathered weather data as a test run of the technology, Krueger said.

Physics and mechanical engineering senior Katrina Faucett, who leads the University’s Minnesota Space Grant Balloon team, said the StratoStar Systems needed people to launch balloons, and the balloon team wanted to launch another balloon, so the partnership worked well.

“They’re the ones putting on the mission, we’re just helping them launch it,” Faucett said. “We’re playing mainly support right now.”

Two local elementary schools also sent up class experiments.

Jill Gugisberg-Wall, aerospace coordinator at Farnsworth Elementary in St. Paul and a University alumna, said she was excited a group of sixth graders got to work with University students.

The Launch

The launch went well, Krueger said, although the network was only established with five balloons.

The University’s balloon launched successfully but was one of three that couldn’t transmit data.

“We knew it would be a stretch to get out to Iowa and Minneapolis,” he said. Another balloon would have been needed in Wisconsin to link the other balloons.

Faucett, who helped track the University’s balloon as it made its 90-mile flight from Zimmerman, Minn. to around Eau Claire, Wis., said the day was stressful, but fun.

“That balloon put us through so much drama,” she said.

The balloon’s main tracking device lost signal around 10:40 a.m., halfway into the three-hour flight. When the balloon hit 80,000 feet, Faucett said the transmitter fell to the ground at 120 mph.

“That landed off on the side of a driveway, in a ditch, 10 feet from a (farmer’s) combine,” she said. “But it survived intact.”

The Future

Determined to create a larger network and overcome current problems, Krueger said there are talks about another launch next fall.

For Flaten and his team of five University students, Saturday’s launch could be the balloon team’s last for a while.

“We will continue our activities,” he said. “We will continue building things over the winter and launching them in the spring, and perhaps another team working next summer on ballooning.”

Despite the problems with the flight, Faucett said she views it as a success.

“It’s just another launch under our belts,” she said.