Students launch high-altitude balloon.
At 6 a.m. on May 26 while most students were at home asleep, four 12th-grade students and one parent from Clark Magnet High School’s Advanced Engineering class met their teacher David Black at the school’s newly-created Engineering Lab to do something no student at Clark had done before: take pictures and video from near-space. They would accomplish this task by using a large helium-filled balloon to lift a custom designed payload carrying high-definition still and video cameras.
After analyzing wind data and finalizing the flight prediction at the Clark lab, the team departed for the selected launch site in Simi Valley. The launch site was chosen based upon a target landing zone near Hesperia.
Students prepared the payload for flight by powering up the internal electronics and double-checking every wire, knot and attachment. After verifying connections and inflating a six-foot diameter balloon with a calculated amount of helium, the craft was ready for flight. With a quick countdown and release, the balloon and payload were well on their way to near-space.
“After it passed through the clouds, we had no idea if we’d ever see it again, but we were hoping for the best,” said student Mgo Arabian. Less than one minute later, the team received a radio transmission from the balloon: everything was working perfectly.
Launching the balloon was only a small piece of the day’s adventures. The team quickly packed up their launch supplies and began the chase northeast to the high desert. The balloon’s payload carried a GPS receiver and a radio transmitter, which was programmed to send data packets on the Automated Packet Reporting System network. Identified by the amateur radio call sign KJ6SCT-11, students in chase vehicles were able to track the balloon on a web-based map in real-time using a mobile 3G data connection.
Approximately every 60 seconds, a new update would be received with internal and external temperatures, altitude, heading and speed. The balloon took a path east over the Verdugo Mountains before heading northeast over the Angeles National Forest and on toward the Antelope Valley.
After about an hour and 45 minutes, the balloon reached a peak altitude of 103,126 feet and began heading back west.
“That’s over three and a half times higher than Mt. Everest. This is just incredible,” said parent Chris Spurgeon who had joined the student team. His son Will was monitoring and reporting the altitude every minute to other members of the chase team.
A tense few minutes passed when the altitude did not change higher or lower. At the high altitude, air temperatures measured approximately 28 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale. The team was expecting the balloon to burst, and was worried that something had been miscalculated. But a few minutes later, Will exclaimed, “It burst, it burst! It’s down to 45,000 feet!”
The team later calculated that the craft took a plunge at an average speed of over 550 mph before the parachute inflated in the lower atmosphere in which air is denser.
The balloon took a sharp turn back toward the east, with ground speeds up to 200 mph.
“It was going so fast there was just no way for us to catch up,” recalled student Vahe Baboomian. “We were about five to 10 miles behind it the whole way, so we didn’t get to see the landing.”
At 12:35 p.m., the balloon sent its last radio data packet indicating an altitude of 3,747 feet and a change in direction flying northeast over the southern part of Victorville.
The team drove to the last known location and began to devise a search strategy. When they realized the last known altitude was only 700 feet higher than the ground elevation, they began walking in the last known heading in hopes of spotting the craft’s reflective covering or its red and blue parachute. Minutes later, the team spotted Will running toward the middle of an empty dirt lot, and rushed to see what he had found.
Less than 100 feet from the road, there it was – intact with the camera still snapping photos. The craft had been successfully recovered, and the photographs and video survived.
“I am so proud,” said senior Rozina Nalbandian, who helped calculate the flight prediction but was unable to join the chase.
Eleventh grade student Alex Deravanessian documented the launch and recovery with various cameras, and is currently working on reviewing and editing the footage to post online in the next few days. Once finalized, the video will be linked to Clark’s home page at www.clarkmagnet.net.
“These students have been working hard preparing for this launch since October of last year,” said engineering teacher David Black. “The thrill of successfully recovering the payload is indescribable. It is hard for us all to return to normal school work after seeing the view from 103,000 feet. This was an experience these students will remember for the rest of their lives.”