An Epic Journey Concludes a Year of Adventure Science for the Devil Dragon Balloon Team

An Epic Journey Concludes a Year of Adventure Science for the Devil Dragon Balloon Team

For over a year, we’ve been sharing the travels and travails of the SCH and Drexel student scientists—and their mentors—participating in the NASA-sponsored Nationwide Eclipse Balloon Project (NEBP). This week, the Devil Dragon team wrapped up their epic journey in Old Forge, NY, and then Putney, VT, where they retrieved the payload carried by the balloon during the eclipse on Monday. 

“This experience has allowed me to do work at the college level and attend conferences like the American Astronomical Society, which have increased my ability to participate in science and research,” says senior Shaun Gupte. “Of course, the project was fun too, tracking down balloons after they've landed makes doing science feel like you're on a mission. Not to mention that we got to see the totality of a solar eclipse, which was an unbelievable experience."

After a weekend spent in Lehigh at FIRST’s Mid-Atlantic District Championship robotics tournament, on Saturday night, the mighty group of five drove through the night to the site that would be their base camp for the balloon launch on Monday.

“I’ve been able to pursue so many different passions through this experience,” says senior Devin Gibson, “and watching everything come together was simply spectacular. Witnessing the eclipse itself was yet another reminder of how incredible this world is.”

SCH’s faculty mentor Dr. Alissa Sperling shares a firsthand recap of the day leading up to the launch and then the balloon’s retrieval in VT. It’s adventure science!

On Sunday, we prepared and tested all payload and launch components for the next day. Monday morning was fairly relaxed. We filled the balloons early and tethered them to the ground so that we could release them at the perfect time (2:30 PM) to be in the path of totality about an hour later when the eclipse reached us. 

When it was time to launch, we carefully laid out the payloads, checked that everything was turned on and plugged in, and then released the first balloon. It was a success! 

Immediately after the first balloon went up we began preparing for the second balloon. We laid out the payloads and released the balloon, and just as the payload lifted off the ground, the attachment between the parachute and the balloon failed and snapped, releasing the payloads to the ground as the balloon flew away. It appeared that our ground tethers from earlier that day had caused rubbing on an attachment point, and the sudden jerk from the launch had snapped the string. We didn’t have enough helium left to fill a third balloon, so we packed up the experiments from the second balloon except for its cameras, which we left to capture the eclipse from the ground.

After the balloon launch, we gathered with our team, other visitors at the camp, and some of our students’ families who had traveled to join us to watch the eclipse. We sat on the camp’s lawn with blankets, cookies, and hot chocolate and enjoyed the beautiful weather while the sky darkened. When totality hit, everyone cheered, and then we sat in silence to enjoy the eclipse and listen to the sounds—or silence—of the natural world. 

For the rest of the day, we cleaned up and tracked the path of our balloon before sending a cut-down command to the balloon just beyond the Green Mountains in VT. We also planned for our next-day retrieval since we knew from our GPS trackers that the balloon landed 156 miles away in Putney, VT, nearly a five-hour drive away.

On Tuesday morning, we left our camp at 6 AM and drove toward Putney. Our team reassembled at the Yankee Candle Village attraction at the MA/VT border to plan our arrival in VT, pick up some fudge to give to the property owners who had the payload in their yard, and experience the indoor Bavarian Christmas village that has snowfall every five minutes. We then drove up to Putney and met up with Mary, who owned the property that our payload had landed in and was anticipating our arrival. (Through the wonders of Google Maps and creative internet searching we were able to locate and contact the homeowners. They were thrilled with our call!) Once we got to Mary’s house, Cameron used his drone to locate the payload in the trees and then hiked into the woods behind Mary’s house and found our payload about 40 feet up a small maple tree. We cut down the tree and successfully retrieved our payloads! Upon returning to Mary’s house, Mary and her husband, Chris, provided us with snacks and water and then offered to take us to visit the private collection museum that they had constructed on their property. Mary is an accomplished photographer, and Chris is a sculptor who has had his work displayed across the country, so we enjoyed a private tour of the couple’s private Black Box Museum before departing for Philadelphia. 

All three cars traveling for retrieval reached Philadelphia in the middle of the night. Including our travel for the robotics tournament in Lehigh, our crew traveled 1178 miles in the last four days. Sleep? Not a lot! We are working on analyzing our data now.

Congratulations to our mighty Devil Dragon balloon team—Cameron Lyon, Shaun Gupte, Devin Gibson, and Karina Chan-van der Helm, and faculty advisors Alissa Sperling and Peter Randall—we are #SCHProud! Check out the footage on our Devil Dragon NEBP YouTube channel.


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