Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 10 November 2009 13:33
Tabor College chemistry professor Bruce Heyen fills the weather balloon with helium, assisted by students in his astronomy class.
Even the folks at NASA have launch issues sometimes. Before an eager audience of Tabor College and Hillsboro public school students, an attempt to launch a weather balloon Thursday morning took an unexpected turn when a string and clip snapped seconds before the planned release—sending the helium-filled balloon sailing higher and higher into the clear Kansas sky while leaving the attached testing equipment firmly grounded.
Hillsboro Elementary School students had varying reactions to the long wait.
The balloon just moments before the clip and string snapped.
“I don’t know why the string and clip broke,” said Bruce Heyen, professor of chemistry. “It could have been that a gust of wind yanked it a little hard.”
In the end, he said, leaving the expensive testing equipment behind was a good thing. He and his chase team were unable to find the balloon when it returned to earth because the GPS transmitter on board malfunctioned.
Heyen said the balloon rises to 90,000 to 100,000 feet in the sky, then bursts because of the low pressure.
“It goes up about 1,000 feet a minute, then it comes down about 1,500 feet a minute,” he said. “There’s a parachute on it as it comes down.
“It has a GPS unit on it, it measures altitude and sends a signal back to the tracking van—or at least it was supposed to—so you know where it ends up.
“It was really kind of a blessing because all we really lost was the transmitter and not all of the other equipment,” Heyen said.
The launch was the climax of a three-week project conducted by Heyen’s astronomy class.
He also partnered with Darlene Bartel’s eighth-grade science class at Hillsboro Middle School. When the ballon took off, three of her students climbed into the chase van with Heyen and seven of his students—but they couldn’t pick up the tracking signal.
“Unfortunately, our GPS receiver malfunctioned,” Heyen said. “I had tested it earlier in the week, and it was working fine. Then, when we got ready to run, it wasn’t working.”
Heyen quickly contacted Taylor University in Indiana, which sponsors the weather-balloon program for schools across the country through a federal grant.
“I called them to troubleshoot, and they actually could pick up the signal from the balloon in Indiana,” Heyen said. “The last signal he got in Indiana was by Matfield Green in Chase County.”
The team headed out and was given a general location of where the balloon might have landed...but to no avail.
“We searched the Flint Hills for about an hour and a half, over the streams and up and down the hills,” Heyen said. “It’s a beautiful place down there, but we couldn’t find the balloon because we couldn’t get a signal.
“It was kind of fun to go on the chase,” he added. “We just don’t have anything to show for it.”
Heyen was introduced to the weather-balloon program while attending a workshop at Taylor University this past summer. The equipment used in the local experiment belongs to the university.
“By going to the workshop I got a free launch—and I don’t know if they’re going to let me do another one or not,” Heyen said with a chuckle.
“We had a temperature sensor, also sensors for air pressure, humidity, light and radiation—and then a video camera,” he said. “Those would have gathered the data and transmitted it back to the computer.”
Heyen said he would like to make another attempt in the future.
“We put a lot of work into making the (equipment) pods—several hours with quite a few students working on them.”