STEM Students' NASA Balloon Launch is a Success

STEM Students' NASA Balloon Launch is a Success

What were three SCH students doing rummaging through the thick brush on a rural Texas ranch this past weekend? Intrepid and anxious, the team was following the GPS trail for their NASA-sponsored project—a balloon loaded with experiments—they had launched from Rocksprings, Texas. Two-plus hours away from the launch site, they were in search of the balloon’s cameras and payload boxes that had just dropped from the sky.

The cohort of SCHers, led by teachers Peter Randall and Alissa Sperling, with a team of Drexel University students, who together call their team Devil Dragon Ballooning, was one of just 53 teams sponsored by NASA to conduct experiments for the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project during two eclipses occurring in the U.S. this year. During the annular eclipse on October 14, the moon only obscured part of the sun, producing a dramatic “ring of fire” in the sky. This past weekend’s launch was more than six months in the making and the stakes were high: Experiments from UCLA, Drexel, NASA, and SCH were dependent on a successful and timely launch. 

From their camp in Rocksprings, Cameron Lyon ’24, Devin Gibson ’24, Karina Chan-Van der Helm ’24, and Shaun Gupte ’24, alongside Drexel students, had carefully prepared their balloon (the size of a small car!), filling it with helium, attaching two digitally stabilized 3D cameras, and outfitting it with what Randall called a 45-foot “complicated and unwieldy tail” carrying nine payload boxes. (Think: small insulated coolers attached to a string!) Students, faculty, and a group from the camp gathered to watch the ascent. 

NASA Balloon Launch October, Students from SCH and Drexel

Above, left: SCH students in Texas during the launch week; from left: Cameron Lyon, Karina Chan-Van der Helm, Shaun Gupte, and Devin Gibson. Above, right: SCH and Drexel teams, aka Devil Dragon Ballooning, with the Milky Way in the background.

Then, the unthinkable happened: The string of boxes detached from the balloon, and the launch failed. The crowd watched the balloon float away, sans experiments, into the sky.

“I just watched it disappear. It was shocking,” said team member Karina. “But our test launch (a few weeks ago) had also failed so we knew what to do. We were prepared.”  

Within minutes, the team readied and launched a replacement balloon. Time was of the essence, as the project’s experiments were designed to collect data specifically during the eclipse that would last just about four-and-a-half minutes. 

“We had literally minutes to say, ‘Get on with it,’ get the next balloon out, do new calculations, and get it up,” said Randall, chair of SCH’s Robotics and Engineering Department. “After the initial failure, the speed with which the students got over their disappointment and got another balloon up was pretty dramatic.”

SCH students Balloon Launch, NASA, October

With a few hiccups, the second balloon was on its way, but what proved to be even more dramatic was the retrieval of the payloads. The teams jumped in their vehicles to locate it, hoping—but not expecting—to find their equipment intact. The SCH team, driven by Sperling in a blue Jeep, navigated its way to the ranch 78 miles away. Their GPS tracked the location hours from Rocksprings. Their kit was almost entirely intact. 

“The first moment, seeing the payloads on the ground was kind of scary, because we didn’t know if things were broken,” said Chan-Van der Helm, who examined camera footage alongside her SCH teammates. “The first moment we saw the picture of space, that was insane. We pulled the car over, and everyone was screaming and crying, or more like tearing up. It was crazy to see all of our hard work pay off.”

Devil Dragon Ballooning ultimately returned home with multiple payloads of data and stunning videos of space (and that Texas terrain, see video below) at just over 100,000 feet (that’s three times the cruising altitude of a plane!), but it was an emotional journey.

What’s next? The SCH team will be presenting at national conferences and analyzing data from the launch alongside their Drexel counterparts in the coming months, sifting through three days of recordings, 250 gigabytes of video, and real-time telemetry data. They’ll also be learning from their mistakes and launching again in upstate New York on April 8, 2024, during the total eclipse.

Hear our students talk about the launch here.

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