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Sandy Journal

Jordan High students launch balloon into space

Dec 02, 2016 02:47PM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan High Maker Collective students prepare a weather balloon to launch into the upper atmosphere from Utah’s west desert. (Lance Nielsen/Sandy resident)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

A student project that was designed to record a journey into space turned into an offer to help students with further technology projects from Hill Air Force Base.

Last spring, a Jordan High advanced studies research class brainstormed technology ideas they could pursue. They decided to launch a weather balloon into space with a camera to record the journey.

The class, called Maker Collective, is a student-led science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) group that has about 30 students who are accepted after an application process.

“We want students to pursue projects that they’re interested in learning about,” said Boyd Christiansen, a senior and student leader of the group. “We want students to see what they can do and apply what they’ve learned to their next projects.”

Coordinating the weather balloon launch were seniors Devin Nielsen and Brendan Larsen.

“We started last May, ordering a weather balloon online, looking at weather reports and getting FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) approval,” Nielsen said. “We wanted to see what our GoPro would record in the atmosphere and thought it would be a really quick, easy project.”

The group, which spent about $200 on the project, attached the weather balloon to a Styrofoam ice chest, which was selected to insulate the electronic tracking device. The tracking device also had hand warmers wrapped around it to protect it from the changing temperatures in the atmosphere, Nielsen said.

The students launched the balloon — filled with helium — from the west desert on Sept. 26. 

“We expected the balloon would travel southeast after reading the weather reports, but it actually went southwest into the 2,600 square miles of Utah Testing and Training Range and landed near Wildcat Mountain. We knew where it was because of the tracking device, but we didn’t expect it to land where Hill Air Force was doing testing,” Nielsen said.

Their adviser, Cameo Lutz, said it traveled about 16 miles before the balloon popped. Wildcat Mountain is about 50 miles west of Tooele, which once played host to a Cold War–era bombing target field near its southeastern foot.

Nielsen immediately sent emails to Hill Air Force Base, but they didn’t recover their payload until about mid-October when Hill Air Force Base commander Christopher Gough brought it to their class.

He said they were doing their annual clean-up of exploded bombs from the 1940s to 2016 when they spotted their payload.

Larsen, who is known for his sense of humor, had written a message on the ice chest that said, “Property of Idiots with Munny” with the initials of Jordan High School’s Maker Collective group, and a phone number to call.

“Your humor saved the effort,” Gough said. 

He congratulated the students on their flight that reached 50,000 feet.

“When I was your age, frankly, I had no idea you could do this. Somebody once told me to be bold. Don’t let anyone tell you no. Go out and make them tell you yes. And this is a yes,” Gough said. “Be bold, be smart and have a sense of humor.”

While their payload was returned in one piece, including the camera and tracking device, students said some of the camera’s footage was cut out. They are not certain if the chip wasn’t large enough, there were technical issues or it was censored. 

“We’re not sure exactly what happened, but what it did capture was pretty cool,” Larsen said. “It’s amazing and literally, out of this world, how high we got with a tiny balloon.” 

The commander also extended an offer to work with the students with further technical, scientific and engineering projects as well as show students Hill Air Force Base projects on both the range and base.

“We did everything right, but if we were to do it again, we’ll have to look up more accurate weather models. We knew the wind speed, but we needed the higher atmosphere wind models that weren’t four days old,” Nielsen said.

However, they’re not sure if they will be working on another balloon lift-off.

“We’ve done it now so it reduces the educational value. We have more experiences we can gain from other projects,” Christiansen said.

One of those includes InMoov, an advanced robot that senior classmate Connor Hill pictures walking the school hallways.

“We started it last year and already, we have groups working on it with circuit design, visual recognition, software recognition, mobility, coding and more,” Hill said. “It’s definitely going to be cool when we’re done.”