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Sandy Journal

Quail Hollow Elementary students launch third high-altitude balloon, reach top altitude

Dec 02, 2022 05:48PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Their first launch was in 2018, then in 2019. This year, Quail Hollow launched its third high-altitude balloon.

“It started as a branch of our robotics team I coached, but now it’s an opportunity to spark an interest in STEM in the students and in their parents,” said Spencer Clegg, a parent who oversees the activity.

The group met for a few weeks this fall where they learned about the principles of atmosphere to what it’s like in space before building a payload in a Styrofoam box, with GPS trackers inside.

“We usually attach several GoPros and 360 (degree) cameras so we can see where it travels before we recover it,” Clegg said. “Students are learning how sound doesn't travel in space, how it's cold up there and why it's cold. Each year, we mix it up a little bit teaching new principles and how those apply to this weather balloon.”

The first year, Clegg said the group was excited to figure out how to launch something in space.

“The second time we used bigger balloons to get a bit higher. We used 360 (degree) cameras for the first time to capture our footage,” he said.

This year, the group had a different challenge since there is a shortage of helium.

“I was on a waitlist for several months and just never got helium. We switched to hydrogen, which has its drawbacks that it's potentially more dangerous. So, we had more safety precautions this year,” he said.

Clegg said because hydrogen is a lot lighter, it has a higher performance.

“The big difference is when hydrogen is mixed with the right amount of oxygen, it is very explosive. We're using pure hydrogen and even when it's in a latex weather balloon; there's still a risk. However, it’s so light that once it does pop, the hydrogen just goes up in the atmosphere and disperses very quickly,” he said. “But to be safe, we didn't have any kids near the balloon, adults wore electrostatic smocks, all the equipment was grounded, and we kept all electronics away. We especially followed the National Weather Service's protocols for safety with hydrogen.”

With the lighter hydrogen, the group of about 30 Quail Hollow students reached their highest elevation at 108,000 feet.

“We're just incrementally improving things. We used newer radios this year that had higher output power, so it's a little bit easier to track,” Clegg said.

This year, the group traveled to Tabiona, northwest of Duchesne, where weather conditions were best for the launch.

“We run through these mathematical models that can predict based on the current weather, what those will look like. As we get closer to the launch day, that weather model becomes more accurate,” he said, adding that they prefer a more rural location, away from mountain ranges.

The launch was livestreamed to their classmates back at school.

Once launched, the group tracks the high-altitude balloon for 90 minutes before reuniting with it. A few weeks after returning to school, they gather to watch a video of the experience, look at photos through a virtual reality headset, and recap what they learned.

They also received a button with their name on it that traveled in the payload as a “souvenir” of the experience.

“It’s been fun for kids to discover an interest in STEM and with this, they're seeing what it's all about and are getting a taste for science, space and other parts of STEM,” Clegg said. “I hope they come away with gaining a desire to pursue STEM as a passion or as a career. I think also, they realize space isn't that far away. It's like driving from here to Ogden. One hundred eight thousand feet isn't that far, it is somewhat hard to get there and they’re learning that they can figure out how to do that, how to do something that’s hard.”