NASA Selects SCH as one of its Student Teams for High-Flying Balloon Science

NASA Selects SCH as one of its Student Teams for High-Flying Balloon Science

Following a rigorous application process, a cohort of four SCH juniors and eight Drexel University students (plus faculty members) was selected by NASA as one of 53 teams—and one of just a handful of teams that included high school students—from across the country who are preparing small experiments to accomplish big science during two upcoming eclipses. Through the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project (NEBP), students contribute valuable scientific and engineering data through their projects. Experiments will be carried by weather balloons (about the size of a small car!) into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere during the next two solar eclipses North America will experience—an annular solar eclipse on October 14, 2023, and a total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. 

During an annular solar eclipse, the Moon is at or near its farthest point from Earth, so it appears smaller and does not fully block the Sun, as it does in a total solar eclipse. When these celestial events occur, SCH and Drexel’s joint team, Devil Dragon Ballooning, will be in place along the eclipse path to fly its payload exploring phenomena such as changes in temperatures—which can be rapid during eclipses—and cloud pattern changes caused by gravity waves, plus testing new technologies.

NEBP payloads focus on either atmospheric science or engineering, and SCH’s project will focus on engineering, which means they’ll launch one balloon during each eclipse, floating its 12-pound payload, which includes live streaming cameras, at about 70,000 feet. 

Devil Dragon Ballooning recently began to build its ground station here on campus with the goal of completing this portion of the project by the end of the academic year. The NASA application process began in summer 2022 after discussions with Rich Cairncross, a professor of chemical engineering at Drexel University, who was interested in collaborating with SCH on a joint ballooning team after hearing about SCH’s previous experience with high-altitude ballooning. SCH engineering teachers selected the four SCH students for the 18-month course that will include balloon launches from Rock Springs, TX, and upstate NY. In the coming months, not only will the selected juniors Karina Chan van-der Helm, Shaun Gupte, Cameron Lyon, and Devin Gibson continue the build, provided by NASA, but they will also contribute to decisions about what additional experiments to send into the atmosphere. While the balloon is in flight, the ground team will be tracking the balloon, and a "chase car" will be following below to retrieve the balloon's payload after the balloon bursts and the payload falls to the ground. In the meantime, the team will attempt to plan for the unknown: the two-minute window they’ll have to launch, the WiFi situation on the ground, and the precarious landing, which could be in a tree, a lake, or (hopefully!) an open field, but that will ultimately be at the will of the wind!  

“This project gives our students the opportunity to participate in real-world, cutting-edge science during their high school years,” says Alissa Sperling, an SCH physics teacher who spearheaded the application process with NASA. “However, the NEBP is about more than simply gathering data—we are bringing these kids through a full engineering design cycle and all the challenges that come with it. Our hope is that through this experience our students will learn about much more than atmospheric science; they will learn about collaboration, problem-solving, and the resilience required to bring a project of this scale to fruition.”

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