I have been doing Socratic Seminars in my physics class long enough to know when they go well. There is a buzz of dialogue that lingers for days or weeks afterward. Such a moment occurred this past fall with my 58 ninth graders, when we dialogued about an article on panspermia, focusing on professor Michael Mautner’s argument that we have a moral obligation to seed the universe with terrestrial life. Later that evening, while driving some of these students to our local climbing gym, the conversation shifted to possible mechanisms for an earth-born panspermic mission.
“What if we could send life out into outer space? Tardigrades on solar sails. That would be an amazing project!” I was hooked.
That night, pursuing the idea, I came across an article about a group of university students from Great Britain who launched a weather balloon into the upper atmosphere to capture a stunning photo of the curvature of the earth. Here was a potential entry point that seemed within our reach. Later that week I spoke to the seniors in our Astronomy Club. They all wanted to get involved. One student remarked, “You’ll need a way to stabilize the camera so you don’t get shake. There are balloons rated to different altitudes, but you should be able to get one that will expand to a 20-foot diameter at about 100,000 feet and pop. Your most important system will be the parachute deployment and the GPS. You don’t want your electronics to break on impact.”
I opened the second semester by informing my 9th grade class that they would help develop a Space Science Program (SSP) at High Tech High. Our astronomy club had just been given an eight-inch Newtonian telescope, prompting an additional donation from our parent association to purchase a mount and camera. We needed to learn how to do astro-photography, and we would launch two weather balloons into near space to photograph the curvature of the earth. If we could make it work—a still-uncertain prospect—it would be the first of many balloon launches focused on science in near space. These ninth graders would be the pioneers.
I began working with two colleagues to develop the SSP: my co-advisor of the Astronomy Club, Andrew Lerario, and Blair Hatch, whose twelfth grade multimedia students created our web page and posted the photos we were capturing. Older Astronomy Club students started visiting my class to observe and converse with the ninth-graders as they developed their weather balloon designs. We set up teams to develop the imaging system, the safety and recovery system, the packaging, and the launch. Along the way, we learned how to use our equipment to take photos and process deep space objects. Students became teachers, and teachers became students, all learning together.
Early one morning in May, our launch and recovery team of eight students set out for the desert east of San Diego. There, we set up, made sure all our systems were go, and filled the IQPI Weather Balloon with helium. Just as we were about to attach the imaging package, a line broke. We watched the balloon float up—100 m, 200 m, 1000 m—without the package. The students sank to the ground, feeling they had failed and embarrassed to have let down their classmates. I shared their disappointment; however, I saw this as an opportunity. Back at school, I explained to our entire team how this failure would lead to eventual success, that this was how science and engineering are done, and that this was our moment to assess, make corrections and try again.
We had to wait three weeks to attempt the second launch, checking the University of Wyoming’s Balloon Tracking Forecast for favorable winds in the upper atmosphere. When the window of opportunity finally came in early June, Andrew, two students and I journeyed out to the same desert spot. This time our lift-off was successful, and we retreated to a local restaurant to wait for the ping that would tell us our package had returned to earth.
The forecast predicted we should begin receiving GPS pings an hour and forty five minutes after launch, but three hours later we were still sitting there, waiting. No signal. Andrew went out to the car, getting ready to leave for home. The students sat across from me silent. We had already voiced every possible explanation for what might have happened. My eyes drifted toward the computer screen as it refreshed. Ping! The screen changed. “We have a signal!!!” I shouted to the entire restaurant. Deryk sprinted out the door as I started collecting our stuff. Andrew came in with an enormous grin on his face. “Where is it?” he shouted, and we were off on the recovery mission.
We recovered our IQPI-Pazuzu Near Space Balloon in a field outside of Yuma, AZ some 90 miles east of the launch point, where it had landed in soft farmland 150 feet from a road. In the imaging package we found nearly two hours of video from the ascent, with images of the deserts of California, Arizona, and Mexico, the Colorado River, the Pacific Ocean and the blackness of space against the curving earth. Now the science could begin.
It was fascinating to witness the explosion of ideas as the class looked at the images together. What if we put life on the next balloon? What if we filmed the balloon popping? What if we launched over the Sierra Nevada to get images of mountains? What if we launched before sunrise to get an image of the sun against the earth? What if we developed a first person viewer to see what the camera is filming in real time? What if we launched during a solar storm to look at radiation levels? What if we flew a glider off of the balloon? Can we get something into orbit?
In their year-end presentations of learning, ten in our group of 58 expressed a desire to study astronomy or astro-physics in college. Regardless of whether this would actually come to pass, I knew I had stumbled on something major. This big, hairy, audacious idea will be the cornerstone for what I will do in the coming years—studying space and looking beyond what we can normally see, whether through telescopes, microscopes or imaging systems in places we can’t easily get to. Several graduating seniors are organizing a second launch this summer before leaving to college. Andrew will continue balloon experiments with this same cohort of students when they reach his class next year. I have been approached by 7th and 8th graders who want to be in my class. Our next steps will include adding sensors and a communications system to the balloon. We plan to connect with private clubs, university groups and other schools doing similar experiments. We are now even thinking about putting a satellite cube out into space. Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll send a microbe out and see where it ends up.
For more information and additional images visit: hthspacescience.net.
For a video of the balloon launch, go to: YouTube.com