Students in the Forestview Middle School high-altitude balloon class spent the last five weeks waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... to launch their balloon into the atmosphere.
The students finally were able to launch their balloon the morning of March 25, from the south shores of Shamineau Lake. The balloon headed east, reaching a peak altitude of 109,957 feet, before landing near the intersection of county roads 2 and 45 in St. Mathias.
The class ended on Feb. 15, but the initial launch date of Feb. 17 was canceled due to bad weather conditions. The class kept running launch simulations based on the weather, teacher Jim Reed said, but it was late March before a good launch date presented itself.
"We had to play the weather a little bit this time," teacher Cory Olson said. "The jet stream was kind of funky, so we had to go a little bit to the west, so we could get a better landing zone."
The balloon thankfully came down in a big, plowed field, Reed said, which made retrieval a breeze. Some students and their parents even got to watch the balloon land. The class was hoping to hit 120,000 feet, Reed said, but he suspects the payload was a bit too heavy to reach that height. Still, 109,957 feet is the second-highest altitude a balloon has hit in class's nine-year history. The class record belongs to a balloon launched in August of 2014 which reached 113,080 feet.
After waiting weeks to launch, the students in the class reacted loudly when the balloon finally took off on March 25. The balloon carried a camera which was recording audio, Reed said, and at 1,000 feet, the camera still picked up the screaming and yelling of the excited students.
"They were pumped," Reed said.
"They were jazzed," Olson said.
The class launched a floater balloon on March 21 from the school, after the first launch on Jan. 18 failed. The replacement balloon was filled and ready to fly, sitting in Reed's office, he said, as the class waited for a nice day to launch it.
Three days after the floater balloon launched, it checked in south of Iceland. Then, on April 1, the balloon made its way over China and Japan. The balloon is now making its way over the Pacific Ocean, heading back to the U.S. to compete its first lap. The balloon, filled with helium, has leveled off at nearly 40,000 feet and is traveling at about 90 mph.
The floater balloon could stay up for another 2-3 months, Olson said, unless it comes across bad weather or deteriorates. The class hopes it will circumnavigate the globe at least once, he said, if not a few times. It sends back data on its longitude, latitude and temperature, Reed said, and the students can use this info to follow weather patterns. Reed and Olson update a physical map every few days with the balloon's location, so students can track its path.
The students had started to get anxious after waiting so long to launch their balloons, Olson said. They would run a lot of the launch predictions themselves, he said, so they knew right away when it wasn't safe to launch.
"You have to be patient when you send that technology up there," Olson said. "You're playing the weather, and not so much the weather, you're playing the upper atmosphere weather."
As the wait to launch stretched into spring, the class started running out of time to launch the balloon, Reed said. If they waited too long, there would be too much thin ice in the area, which makes retrieval impossible, he said.
"We couldn't take the chance of landing on a lake and then seeing our stuff sit out on thawing ice and not go out and get it," Reed said.
Ideal launch conditions include a high-pressure system and light winds in the upper atmosphere, Reed said. Cloud banks are usually tough to break through, Olson said, but the balloon launched on March 25 broke through a thinner cloud bank with no issues.
The goal of the launch is recovering the equipment, Olson said, so the class won't launch the balloon unless the conditions are right. The balloon can't land in a lake, he said, and the class tries to avoid trees, if possible.
"We spend a lot of time talking to the kids about the patience involved in running the program," Reed said. "You can't change the weather, so you just have to get everything ready and be prepared."
The class has launched nine balloons since its inception and at this point, Reed and Olson have developed a routine. The biggest thing now is teaching the students to be patient when it comes to waiting for ideal launch conditions, Reed said. One student who took part in the first launch emailed Reed and Olson to wish them good luck with their launches.
"It's fun to see the veterans for the past classes give us a call back," Olson said.
Another former student now has a commercial pilot's license, Reed said. To calibrate the balloon trackers prior to launch, it's best to fly them around in an airplane, he said. The former student turned pilot has twice helped out his former teachers by flying the trackers around prior to launch.
"That's something we wouldn't have access to if we didn't have a former student like that," Reed said. "So that's been really cool."
Follow the float
To follow the floater balloon's progress, visit https://tracker.habhub.org and enter the balloon's callsign, KD0VJI-11, in the search box in the upper left-hand corner of the screen.