Silverton students launch balloon for eclipse experiment

Silverton High School was the launch site of a high-altitude balloon Monday, Aug. 21, and the launch went off without a hitch around 8:45 a.m.

Events leading up to and directly following, however, weren't always smooth sailing.

The high school program was one of 55 teams nationwide that built balloons to capture data and video of the Great American Eclipse, which passed by the Mid-Willamette Valley and crossed the United States. The data will be utilized by NASA and other agencies.

“It actually went as textbook as it could have gone,” project coordinator Creighton Helms said of the eclipse-day launch.

Helms said the project faced obstacles in the weeks and days leading up to the launch: wind forecasts that would have pushed the balloon to restricted airspace above wildfires, GPS units not working and having to be overnighted to NASA for repair and overnighted back, and a camera that required repair up until 1 a.m. on launch day.

The concerns turned out to be no problem at all.

“Everything just came together and allowed us to be able to fly,” Helms said. “The winds were light and the conditions were good. The balloon lifted off the ground like a pillow.”

Hundreds gathered at the soccer field at Silverton High to witness the event, and an enthusiastic countdown helped set the balloon off for launch.

The project began 10 months ago. This put Silverton's team months behind other projects around the country, so there were concerns as the clock ticked and problems arose.

Belle Doan, an incoming senior at Silverton High, was part of the journalism team, which documented the project each step of the way. She spoke of the anxiety the team felt, but said the successful launch eased any concerns.

"We were a little nervous about the launch, (but) the wind speed wasn’t as bad as we expected, so that was phenomenal," Doan said. "It couldn’t have gone better."

The balloon, which was attached to payload boxes containing data collectors, GPS units and cameras, ascended through clear skies and topped out at 105,000 feet before the balloon burst.

This is the point where concern came back into play.

At about the 100,000-foot mark, the atmosphere is very thin — a layer Helms referred to as “near space.” The balloon began to fall slowly, but eventually gained speed. Helms suspects that the force from the sped-up ascent is what caused the parachute line to break.

This meant that a pair of payload boxes plummeted back to earth from a height of around 90,000 to 95,000 feet. To make matters worse, GPS tracking was disabled, so tracking of the boxes vanished.

“We were in the blind,” Helms said.

That’s where observant south Salem residents come in.

The team had labeled the payload boxes with Helms' contact information, and a pair of calls alerted him to the location of their boxes. Both boxes were eventually retrieved in separate back yards of south Salem residences.

Data collectors will be sent off to the University of Central Arkansas, which will analyze the data and publish results at a future date. Video is also being analyzed by Silverton High staff and students.

It wasn't easy, but ultimately the balloon launched and the team retrieved the payload that went up to collect data.

Helms feels that this is a significant reason this project will pay off for the students involved — every step of the way presented obstacles, which forced the students to problem-solve their way to answers.

"In a very real and literal sense they had to learn how to overcome (problems)," Helms said. "They had to deal with setbacks and defeat. They’ll be able to reflect back on this when they’re doing bigger and better things in life.

"I think that this was a win on many levels."

lclarkson@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6833.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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