DUHS science teachers Amy Cummings and Jennings Brosnan, junior Erich Alden and seniors Michael Bomani and Michael Boyd with the weather balloon they launched early May 22 and recovered from Dallas Lake near Wolcottville, Ind. A digital camera recorded its journey to an altitude of 90,000 feet. Cummings said Tuesday, "There are four layers of the atmosphere. We went up to the second," the stratosphere. "There are still two layers up above where we were at. The stratosphere is home to the ozone layer." (The Daily News/John Eby)
DUHS science teachers Amy Cummings and Jennings Brosnan, junior Erich Alden and seniors Michael Bomani and Michael Boyd with the weather balloon they launched early May 22 and recovered from Dallas Lake near Wolcottville, Ind. A digital camera recorded its journey to an altitude of 90,000 feet. Cummings said Tuesday, "There are four layers of the atmosphere. We went up to the second," the stratosphere. "There are still two layers up above where we were at. The stratosphere is home to the ozone layer." (The Daily News/John Eby)

Archived Story

DUHS students’ weather balloon ascends 90,000 feet, recovered in Indiana

Published 10:32pm Tuesday, May 25, 2010

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

Early Saturday morning, while most of Dowagiac dozed, two teachers and three students got high at Pathfinders Center.

Ninety thousand feet high with a weather balloon.

The Byrds at Eight Miles High have got nothing on Union High School, which ascended between 18 and 19 miles at the rate of 1,500 feet a minute.

A projected 2,000-feet-a-minute descent rate was based on a three-pound payload, when it actually weighed barely a pound and plummeted 690 feet a minute.

For another comparison, Capt. Iven Carl Kincheloe flew his rocket plane to an altitude of 126,000 feet.

A balloon equipped with a digital camera purchased for $55 at a pawn shop and tracked by cell phone with GPS chronicled the journey until it burst between Union and White Pigeon near the Indiana border.

The puny payload fluttered down southeast of Shipshewana, near Wolcottville, Ind., perhaps startling some Amish in their buggies.

Like a real space launch, the mission splashed down in Dallas Lake, where fishermen from Elkhart, Ind., answered the cell phone ring.

It landed within a mile of where they expected.

Traveling 71 mph with the jet stream, its bird’s eye trajectory was calculated at 48 miles, but driving, it took them an hour and 20 minutes to make recovery.

They met up at a public access on the lake.

The fishermen thought they found some sort of buoy until it jangled as one of the students called precisely as their boat paddled past.

Teacher Jennings Brosnan is not sure of the sequence of events, but from his monitoring post here “it was hugging the shoreline and moving, so it was either drifting in the water or they had already picked up” the crate labeled Dowagiac Union High School on the outside.
One of the fishermen asked Amy if she was from DUHS.

As they like to say at the schools, we disaggregated the data Tuesday noon at mission command, the white Smart Board in Brosnan’s physics classroom with meteorology teacher Amy Cummings, seniors Michael Boyd and Michael Bomani (“I would not answer” a floating phone) and junior Erich Alden.

“It’s the first time any of us have done this,” Brosnan said.

“I learned about these guys from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who put together a similar package on one of those nerdy Web sites, and followed the links over to the MIT site. Students put a package together for $150. I thought it would be a good school project. Next year we’ll definitely have more instrumentation.”

“We’ve talked about it since the end of last school year,” Cummings added.

A 6 a.m. launch time on Saturday meant less wind and less air travel. Does that mean they had to get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration?

“FAA regulations, it comes out of FAR part 101,” Brosnan said. “I called the FAA. The first time I got transferred four times and was never given any information at all. They told me to call a lady, Alberta Brown, who was the ‘balloon expert.’ She said, ‘I rode in a hot-air balloon once.’ ”

She referred him to the Grand Rapids FAA station.

“They said, ‘Look at FAR part 101,’ and that was it. Since the entire payload was under four pounds, the entire part does not apply to us, so we’re basically unregulated.”

So when you see the team wearing rubber gloves to handle the balloon, that’s not so there will be no fingerprints if the FAA changes its mind, but if oils from their fingers came into contact with the balloon, that minute amount of moisture freezing could puncture it prematurely.

“All we put in the weather balloon was a camera to take pictures,” Cummings said, “but you can put in other things, like barometers and thermometers, and do different experiments. Higher up in the atmosphere, everything keeps changing, so you can add a lot of things to figure out what’s going on up there. There are four layers of the atmosphere. We went up to the second,” the stratosphere. “There are still two layers up above where we were at. The stratosphere is home to the ozone layer.”

The first layer is the troposphere. The top two are the mezzosphere, which is the coldest, and the thermosphere, which is the hottest.

It seems like you only hear of weather balloons when they trigger a spate of UFO sightings. How prevalent are they?

“I read somewhere there are a few hundred a year,” Brosnan said. “Every day, there are a couple launched somewhere. NASA still uses them.”

“A couple of months ago, one of NASA’s went completely wrong. It went sideways and flipped two SUVs upside down,” Cummings related. “Theirs is a lot bigger, with millions of dollars of equipment,” including an X-ray telescope that was being launched. “I originally wanted to put a thermometer and barometer so we could get readings and do graphs in meteorology class and figure out what’s happening, but we didn’t get to there this year.”

They have half a tank of helium left, so they might try another launch – particularly since a buddy of Jennings’ in Florida sent him another balloon.

“Running out of time, our goal this year was just to see if we could track it with a cell phone with GPS (and an external battery charger) and, while we’re at it, let’s take some pictures. We were successful in tracking the balloon, so then we can focus on more.”

“Now that we actually have it done and have shown pictures to our classes,” Cummings said, “a lot more kids are interested in doing it than these three.”

Brosnan modified the camera so it would click an image every 20 seconds.

It makes for an “awesome” slide show.
They tested to insure two hours of battery life, but cut into that snapping away on the ground. They mounted the camera on the side, its lens jutting out of a nest cushioned with pillow stuffing and fortified by a block of wood.

“We had to do the army crawl to get the balloon out of the garage,” Brosnan narrates video shot of Alden by Sister Lakes Principal Matt Severin.

Erich came perilously close to popping it.

The launch was posted on YouTube, but ironically they cannot view it at school because it is blocked.

Their launch was anticipated for 6 a.m., but Amy said it was closer to 7:30 to see if the weather cleared. She hopes for a sunny launch with a high-pressure system for better ground photos next time.

“It went up very fast. After eight seconds, you couldn’t see it anymore.” Brosnan remained at Pathfinders, tracking.

Despite the early hour, “I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I saw you driving by and we were trying to figure out what you were doing,’ ” Cummings said.

The only clear ground shot looks like an aerial photo of DUHS perhaps taken from a small plane landing at nearby Municipal Airport.

“If you count pictures and multiply by 20 seconds, you know what time it is,” said Brosnan, who teaches math as well as science. “We’re in the clouds for two minutes, then we bust out” into a view similar to looking out the window of a commercial jet.

Brosnan wants to turn the math department loose on the equation by which altitude can be calculated using the earth curvature evident in their photos.

“The clouds that day were all stratus clouds,” Cummings said. “The highest they go is about 3,000 feet.”

As it climbs, the sky bruises from blue to black.

“The atmosphere scatters the light and makes the sky blue,” Brosnan said. “Up at 90,000 feet, we’re above the 99 percent of the atmosphere in the first two layers. The sky got darker even as the sun continued to rise.”

There was a hand warmer placed inside the Styrofoam container, “but we’re not sure it was working,” Brosnan said.

“It needed oxygen to stay warm and there is no oxygen at that altitude. Apparently the heat from the camera was enough. We had a problem with the GPS. For some reason, it wasn’t transmitting, so we left the cell phone on the outside, taping it to the lid. We left that external charger inside, with a wire running out. The cell phone survived. I know they last in a vacuum.”

He gestures towards a large glass chamber on the desk where he places devices confiscated in class.

“If the cell phone died,” Cummings said, “we wouldn’t have been able to find it and we’d have no camera, no pictures.”

Brosnan mentions Joseph Kittinger, who will be 82 in July.

“He jumped from 100,000 feet out of a balloon,” Brosnan said.

According to his Wikipedia page, on Aug. 16, 1960, he made the final jump from the Excelsior III at 102,800 feet.

Towing a small drogue chute for initial stabilization, he fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 mph before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet.

Pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, causing his right hand to swell up to twice its normal size.

Kittinger set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall (four minutes) and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.

These remain U.S. Air Force records, but were not submitted for aerospace world marks.
As the balloon rose through the thinning air pressure, it expanded to a “burst diameter of 15 feet,” parachuting the string of items into an area of Indiana with an unusual concentration of lakes.

“Most of the time you don’t get this much balloon back,” he said. “The balloon stayed pretty well intact except for coming apart at the top.”

And Cummings “tied some good knots. I was worried about that.”

The camera conked out with the descent a few shots short of Wolcottville.

Data came in “chunks,” so they can “connect the dots.”

After graduation, Boyd intends to attend Southwestern Michigan College, then transfer to Michigan State or the University of Michigan for chemical engineering.

Boyd kids about being on the lookout for blue curtains as they drove.

“Blue curtains mean they have a daughter who needs to be married off, if you’re proposing,” Mike explained.

Bomani, who ranks 10th in the Class of 2010, wants to attend the Art Institute of Austin, Texas, to study graphic design. His career plan is to develop games for a major corporation “and expand my own business, Bomani Studios.”

Of the three, Erich exudes a Kincheloe-like passion for this project.

In fact, “I’d like to stay with this and do aerospace or aeronautical engineering, then join the Navy. When they told me about this, I was probably the most excited kid in the school. I like flying and space and the mystery to it. Eventually, I’d like to start doing this on my own. Beating 100,000 feet would be pretty cool. It would take a bigger balloon and a light payload so you have more lift, with a little amount of helium compared to the big balloon so as it goes up it can expand more and more.”

Alden, who grew up in St. Joseph, came to Dowagiac two years ago.

“My grandfather and uncle were both mechanics on airplanes and helicopters in the Navy,” Erich said. “It was a little nerve-wracking waiting for our GPS signal to come through.”

In fact, there was but one update “after staring at a computer screen and clicking refresh for an hour and 32 minutes.”

Their persistent pressing of a button seemed like an homage to the “Lost” finale that followed.

Thanks to those Elkhart fishermen, they didn’t have to pack up and go home or taste the sting of disappointment.

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