Up above the world so high: International School students launch high altitude balloon

Dr. Fisher and the balloon team watch as the balloon rises quickly into the air. (Sun Current staff photos by Sean Miner) The balloon nears its full capacity, soon ready to take flight. (Sun Current staff photos by Sean Miner) Two students ready the payload for the high altitude balloon. (Sun Current staff photos by Sean Miner) The balloon team finds the payload where it fell in a farmer’s field just north of Menomonie. (Submitted photo)
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Dr. Fisher and the balloon team watch as the balloon rises quickly into the air. (Sun Current staff photos by Sean Miner)

By Sean Miner
Sun Current Newspapers

A small group of students from the Eden Prairie-based International School of Minnesota, under the guidance of physics and astronomy teacher Dr. Rod Fisher, launched a high-altitude balloon March 28 from the school’s front lawn.

Hanging from that balloon was a payload, consisting of a small Styrofoam cooler filled with measurement equipment and equipped with a parachute. After filling the balloon with helium and performing some last-minute checks on the on-board measurement systems, the students led an audience of several dozen peers in a countdown, and released the balloon.

It rose, quickly, becoming a slowly drifting dot against the blue sky. It stayed airborne for around two hours. Fisher and his team knew it had come back to earth when the iPhone stashed on board, which they tracked with Find My iPhone, stopped moving.

The balloon had come to rest in a farmer’s field just north of Menomonie, Wisconsin. According to Fisher, the launch objectives had been met — though not quite everything made it to Menomonie.

“As I tell the kids, if the balloon goes up, and it comes down, and we find it — that’s a success,” said Fisher. “I have been laughing with people who ask about details: the pressure gauge didn’t work, it and the thermometer fell off at 20,000 meters, one of the apps didn’t work. There are a number of things that didn’t work, and to me, that’s part of what the experiment’s about.

“Fortunately, the parts that did work allowed us to take video and recover [the balloon],” added Fisher. “I’d say it’s a good outcome.

All told, the balloon ascended for 92 minutes, whereupon the balloon popped, and a parachute guided the payload’s half-hour descent. The temperature at launch was a balmy 65 degrees, in stark contrast to the -40 degrees the balloon encountered at its highest altitude, estimated from visual clues from the video captured to be 90,000 feet.

This was the third such balloon launch Fisher has conducted with ISM students and the first to feature a pressure gauge, thermometer and camera shooting still photos.

Also new this near was a pilot, or at least a stowaway. A live box elder bug was placed in the payload, survived the long flight, and according to Fisher’s report, enjoyed a feast of fresh apple once the students found the payload.

“The main objective is to put together and work out the details of a successful flight, including the launch,” said Fisher. “All of the experiments on top of that are gravy.”

Once the balloon had landed, Fisher made a couple calls to the closest businesses with listed phone numbers, first among them the local VFW and a church. A pastor from the church was able to visually locate the earthborne payload from the road, and the farmer who owned the field called Fisher himself, having independently found the wreckage.

Fisher said that, in each of the three launches, those close to where the balloon lands have been amiable about the experience, even curious.

“We’ve had a lot of great support, whenever [the balloons] land and we talk to people,” said Fisher.

The student group, split between four eighth-graders and four high-schoolers, drove out to Menomonie to recover the balloon, visiting each of the locals that Fisher had been in contact with as well. The recovery process, said Fisher, is one of the best parts.

“I wouldn’t go retrieve it myself,” said Fisher. “I would always want to be there with the students, to see them spot it across the field.”

At press time, the eight students planned to use their weekly meeting on April 4 to debrief and begin preparing a video report, to be posted on YouTube and the school’s website. Regarding that process, as well as everything that came before it, Fisher emphasized that the students are in the driver’s seat.

“Once I’m convinced the balloon will go up, come down and we’ll find it, I let the kids manage it,” said Fisher.

Contact Sean Miner at [email protected]