Up, up and away

University of Wyoming graduate student Phil Bergmaier prepares for a weather balloon launch on the Clear Creek Middle School football field. Photo by Stephen Dow

Science is all about answering seemingly unanswerable questions: What happens to a leaf when it is sent over 20 miles into the air? How are the density of liquids and the polarity of magnets affected at that height?

Thanks to a weather balloon and a partnership with the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium, around 20 students in an eighth-grade science class team taught by Aaron Kessler and Tim Marton at Clear Creek Middle School will soon know the answers to these questions.

At 9 a.m. on Oct. 27, a weather balloon was launched from the 50-yard line of the school’s football field. Attached to the balloon was a box filled with experiments created by Kessler’s students.

“The main idea behind the experiments is to examine something – like the physical attributes of a leaf or the consistency of a liquid – here at 4,000 feet and then compare those results to what we see at 100,000 feet to see if anything’s changed,” Kessler said. “The results should definitely be interesting, and I can’t wait to see what happens. My students and I are really excited to be a part of this project.”

The project, launched by UW atmospheric science doctoral students Phil Bergmaier and Katie Foster, is part community outreach and part science experiment. Since early August, Foster and Bergmaier have been traveling to elementary and middle schools across the state and launching weather balloons. While they always attach student experiments to the balloons, they have a bigger objective in mind – to track and record the solar eclipse that will cross central Wyoming on Aug. 21 of next year.

On that day, the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium will send a weather balloon and its payload – including live-broadcasting cameras, video and tracking systems – up between 60,000 and 100,000 feet in the Casper area.

The launch from Buffalo was one of over a dozen statewide test launches to make sure the technology works properly and to also track Wyoming wind patterns, which could potentially blow the eclipse-tracking weather balloon off course on its big day.

The University of Wyoming is one of multiple colleges from across the United States that will launch high-altitude balloons to track the eclipse. The video recorded by all the balloons will be available for live stream from the NASA website.

“This type of project has never been attempted before, and video of an eclipse from a high-altitude balloon has only been captured once, by one balloon in Australia in 2012,” Bergmaier said in a UW press release. “However, that video was not live-streamed.”

Kessler said this was the first time his students had participated in a project of this scale, and he felt they were getting a lot out of it.

“It’s always exciting when you can get students out of the classroom and apply what they’ve learned in real life,” Kessler said. “This has been a great opportunity for us to do that.”

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