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Gering High School students launch weather balloon

January 13, 2019

GERING — Early Saturday morning students carried boxes and a weather balloon to the Gering High School football field. Students in Justin Reinmuth’s engineering class launched a weather balloon simultaneously with a school in Twin Cities, Minnesota, to document the view of Earth from 100,000 feet high in the stratosphere.

The grass was dusted with frozen water droplets as the temperature hovered in the mid-20s at 8 a.m. Despite the cold temperatures, the winds were calm and provided good launching weather.

After laying down the tarp, students put on gloves before airing up the balloon. Reinmuth connected helium tank to the balloon and began airing it up. Similar to a hot air balloon, students unraveled the balloon as more air expanded the fabric, being careful not to touch the balloon with their skin. Since the stratosphere has temperatures around negative 180 degree Fahrenheit, the oils from a person’s skin would freeze onto the balloon, damaging the integrity of the material and potentially result in the balloon prematurely popping.

Once the second helium tank was empty, students held the 8.5 diameter balloon on the ground as the GoPros were secured into the box. With the launch minutes away, Reinmuth said they discovered an issue with the cameras.

“There were some camera issues that had to be troubleshooted right before the launch,” he said. “We set them the night before and they weren’t alternating today.”

The students developed a sequence where the cameras alternated with some GoPros taking video and others taking photos. Once all the equipment was turned on Saturday morning, the programming was off.

“All of a sudden, they weren’t sequenced so we had to do a really quick on-the-fly reprogram of them,” said Reinmuth.

With the reprogramming successful, Reinmuth secured antennas to the bottom of the box containing the weather equipment and cameras. The antennas had to maintain a line of sight to an Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) per Federal Aviation Association regulations. That way, airplanes did not collide with the equipment, causing damage to the plane and also the school’s equipment. Also inside the container with the camera was 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.

After running a quick check that the signals to help the students track the balloon were recognized by their cellphones, Reinmuth grabbed the balloon and box and let it go. The balloon shot off and quickly gained altitude as it headed southeast.

As the balloon rose through the layers of the atmosphere, it stretched to be over 10 times the original size.

“As you can tell when it took off, we wanted it to take off. The faster I can get it up there and the parachute, the closer I can get the kids,” he said.

Across the country in Minnesota, the students in Twin Cities faced a delay in their launch due to overcast skies, but were also able to launch their weather balloon.

While tracking the balloon’s location, the computer recorded a rise rate of 6.2 meters per second and a speed of 4.9 miles per hour. The total estimated flight time was 1 hour and 51 minutes. They used APRS software and CUSF Landing predictor to track and determine the location of the balloon landing. Based on the information displayed through Google Maps, the balloon took a serpentine path south of Gering, just east of Highway 71, before turning south east north of the Wildcat Hills. At 9:22 a.m., the balloon had reached 57,000 feet and was south of Melbeta. Ten minutes later, it was almost over Chimney Rock.

The goal was for the balloon to reach 100,000 feet before descending back to the earth. As Reinmuth began going through the data gathered from the balloon’s journey, the software indicated the balloon popped at 90,142 feet. However, Reinmuth said the GoPro footage and still photos from 90,000 feet turned out well.

The parachute safely returned the computers and cameras to the ground in a field outside of Redington, which is located southwest of Bridgeport.

Students will start the process of downloading pictures on Monday.

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