May 19, 2017
What will a goldfish do when launched 80,000 feet in the air? Can we collect cosmic interplanetary dust on a weather balloon? What is the atmosphere’s effect on jello? Does time really move slower the higher an object goes?
All of these questions and more were queries the West Ranch astronomy class wished to answer with the launch of their annual weather balloon on May 16.
The astronomy classes divided up into recon, launch, media, Mission Control, and payload teams, all performing different tasks leading up to the launch.
“We’ve been working on this for about a month, and it’s come down to the wire as this is the last week for some of the seniors,” said media team leader, David Nelson.
The whole day, astronomy students flew around the classroom, making final touches on the balloon. At around 2 p.m., students and supervising adults rolled out the blue tarp, and the final countdown to takeoff began with members of the launch team scuttling around, making sure the payloads were securely attached. As 3 p.m. neared, students, assisted by science teacher Rich Haring and principal Mark Crawford, began filling the balloon with helium.
The steady hiss of gas continued as the balloon grew larger and larger.
Energetic rock music and the murmur of excited voices floated on the air, growing louder and louder, cumulating into the final countdown by astronomy teacher, Christine Hearst. With dozens of faces turned up to the sky, the launch team released the strings of the balloon and it zoomed up into the clouds, and the “Mission Impossible” theme was blasted on the speakers as the recon team swept out to follow the balloon’s path and retrieve it.
Teams faced various difficulties leading up to the launch, including high wind speeds.
“I was on the launch team, filling the balloon and sending it up. I’d say I’m co-leader along with Evan, and we just gave instructions to the team.” said junior Mahhad Soherwardey. “I wasn’t expecting the tank to run out of helium, but it looks like it flew up fine. Also when we were filling up the balloon, the harnesses detached, so we had to put it back together so it wouldn’t fly away”
Despite these problems, teams were able to pull everything together in the end.
“The main problem on teams is communication. The thing that differentiates this team from other years is the fact that they have mastered the art of communication between each other. They have good team leads and they work very cohesively together, which fosters innovation in all of the teams. This is one of the smoothest launches I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been here,” said Daniel Tikhomirov, a West Ranch alumni who has worked in the past four launches.
Tikhomirov took his experiences with the West Ranch balloon a few years ago into his current project, working with the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP), alongside NASA.
“It was Mrs. Hirst’s idea to do the whole launch but she did inspire me with this idea with capturing cosmic dust in the upper stratosphere with a balloon,” said Tikhomirov. “We flew in the spring of 2014 when I was a senior here. The only problem was we landed in Pasadena on top of a barbeque in someone’s backyard, and it contaminated our sample so we weren’t able to get any samples or data. So when I went to College of the Canyons, I proposed we repeat the same project on the NASA science balloon. With HASP, they choose 12 student payloads every year to send up on the NASA science balloon and mine was chosen.”
The balloon launched last August, and he is working on repeating the experiment with the NASA balloon this year.
Like Tikhomirov, Hirst was very pleased with the teams and results this year.
“Every year I’m learning more. Every year I have different students and experiments. With the different device to track the balloon, we decreased the stress levels to retrieve it. We had really strong leadership this year. They all worked together really well and there was a really good cohesion in the leaders that offset any difficulties we had.”
A live stream and updates were available on the astronomy class’ website, and the recon team successfully recovered the balloon later that day, leaving the experiment results intact and ready for the students to analyze.
The annual weather balloon launches, including this year’s, continue to inspire dozens of students, like Tikhomirov, to continue to search for the answers to perplexing questions and to reach high, for the stars.