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Gering engineering students to launch balloon, camera equipment to document Earth

December 6, 2018

GERING — A weather balloon will rise over Gering on Saturday, Jan. 12, as students look to document Earth from 100,000 feet high in the stratosphere.

Gering High School students in Justin Reinmuth’s engineering class are preparing to launch a weather balloon into the stratosphere just after the first of the year. The students will launch the balloon at the same time as another school in Minnesota. While the location has not been determined, Reinmuth said they will likely launch the balloon at the Gering High School football field.

Parts for the weather balloon arrived over the last few months, but students are still configuring a way to package the cameras and weather equipment, so when it returns to Earth, the items do not get damaged.

The weather balloon is 10 millimeters thick. When they launch the balloon, 380 cubic inches of high-grade compressed helium will be put into the balloon using a 3,000 PSI K tank and H tank before students secure the cameras and computers. It will have about a 5-foot diameter at that point.

To ensure the balloon reaches its highest altitude, Reinmuth said anyone who handles the balloon will wear gloves. Since the stratosphere has temperatures around negative 180 degrees Fahrenheit, if someone touches the balloon, the oils would freeze onto the balloon, damaging the integrity of the material.

“We have to use rubber gloves when we’re filling the balloon,” he said. “No one can actually touch the balloon. That’s why I haven’t gotten it out yet. The oil from your skin is that touchy that when the balloon hits 100,000 feet, the sun will make it prematurely pop at the areas where you left oil on it.”

As the balloon rises through the layers of the atmosphere, it will stretch to be 10 to 12 times the original size. Reinmuth anticipates it will take the balloon 2½ to three hours to rise up over 100,000 feet. Prior to the balloon popping, the diameter will be around 45 feet.

“If you get above 135,000 feet, you risk it not coming back down,” Reinmuth said. “You get one cosmic wind gust and it isn’t coming back down to Earth.”

He added that even if the helium in the balloon caused the balloon to pop above 135,000 feet, it would be outside the Earth’s gravitational pull and none of the equipment would come back down.

Depending on that day’s weather conditions, they will either deploy a large or small parachute to bring the items down.

“We have two different parachute versions that will pop,” Reinmuth said. “If it’s a windy day, we have to bring it down faster and if it’s a calm day, we can bring it down real slow and not damage anything. But, you have to have two variances.”

Hanging from the balloon will be weather equipment with antennas dangling down to measure pressure, wind and temperature. Throughout the entire flight, the antennas must maintain a line of sight to an Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) per Federal Aviation Association regulations. That way, airplanes do not run into the equipment, causing damage to the plane and also the school’s equipment. There will also be a pocket finder to allow them to map the balloon’s location using Google Maps. Aside from the scientific devices, there will be four GoPros capturing footage of Earth during the ascent and descent.

During Tuesday’s class, Blake Laws, Xavier Horst and Skylier Ward brainstormed how to build a container out of Styrofoam for the items. They plan to use a pelican case to hold the computer and recess that into the Styrofoam, along with the cameras. They also discussed using two separate packages to house the computer and cameras and cutting the Styrofoam at an angle to make holes for the cameras to look down at Earth. While they work through the packaging, Reinmuth said he would like everything to weigh a maximum of 6 pounds.

“I learned that it’s a lot of trial and error,” Horst said. “You will probably never get anything that you make the first time.”

Prior to the launch date, the students need to pick up an APR radio, since that is the only device that will pick up the package signal at that elevation.

Aside from the balloon project, Horst said he is looking forward to all the interesting projects coming up in Reinmuth’s class.

“His (Reinmuth’s) class is really enjoyable,” he said. “We always have a new project that we do.”

Once the balloon experiment is complete, Reinmuth hopes to launch a floater balloon with the robotics class. The difference with the floater balloon is to have it circumvent the globe multiple times and collect data during the trip.

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