CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a farmer in rural Scottsville, Ky., spotted a strange, shimmering object in one of his fields. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It appeared to be nothing more than a Styrofoam beer cooler, wrapped in aluminum foil, with a parachute attached to it.
“What in the world is this?” he reportedly said. Another man with him said it looked like a weather balloon, so the farmer picked up the unusual box and took it back to his garage. The next morning, as he drove down a nearby highway, he happened upon a group of Austin Peay State University students wading through the weeds and tall grass along the side of the road.
“He said, ‘you guys looking for a box about yeah big?’” Dylan Wood, an APSU physics student, recalled. “We said, ‘yes we are.’ He said, ‘let me take you to it.’”
A few minutes later, the students retrieved the cooler, along with the digital camera, they had sent 98,000 feet into the stratosphere. Wood, who has a calm, unassuming demeanor, probably beamed as he took the box back to his car. It was the conclusion of almost three years of hard work for him, dating back to when he first learned of the high altitude balloon project during his freshman year at APSU.
“I’m really glad we actually got this one up,” he said. “And I’m really glad he saw us on the highway.”
The foam cooler’s journey into the region sometimes referred to as “near space” began the previous day when Wood and fellow physic students Ryan Adams and Michael Hurn and chemistry student James Thomas gathered next to a cow pasture at the APSU Environmental Education Center. That’s where they attached a helium-filled balloon to the Styrofoam box. In addition to the camera, Wood placed a GPS tracking device, a temperature probe and other equipment.
It was a cool, but sunny, afternoon with gusts of wind occasionally causing tree limbs to creak. A cow standing near a barbed wire fence eyed the students suspiciously as they spread a blanket across the ground. This was to keep the grass or any sticks from puncturing the balloon.
APSU associate professor of physics Dr. Justin Oelgoetz, who mentored Wood and the others on the project, stood nearby, checking the local air traffic on his cell phone. The aluminum foil would allow airplanes to pick up the cooler on radar, but he wanted to be sure the sky was clear.
“The foil makes this thing nice and bright and obvious,” he said. “Since their payload is so light, they’re in an unregulated area as far as the FFA (Federal Aviation Administration) is involved.”
Behind Oelgoetz, Adams and Hurn transported helium canisters to the blanket. Then APSU laboratory manager Bryan Gaither slowly filled the balloon while the others held it firmly to keep it from flying away too soon.
Wood checked the GPS transmitter. It was set to send out coordinates every five minutes, which he could track online. Everything seemed ready so he and the other students connected the balloon to the cooler. After counting down from 10, they released the balloon, which rose rapidly into the sky. For the next hour, the camera took pictures first of Clarksville, then of some vague countryside along the Tennessee/Kentucky border. The balloon passed through a cloud, causing a mist to blur the camera’s lens. Eventually the pictures showed the darkness beyond earth’s atmosphere and the glowing blue curvature of the planet.
Then the balloon popped. The cooler drifted down for another hour, thanks to the parachute, landing in a field in Kentucky. When the students finally recovered it, everything was in working order.
“We had good data collected from the data logger we had on there,” Wood said. “It’s a cool thing to do but we also get useful data. We’re thinking of sending up a Geiger counter and studying the cosmic rays of the upper atmosphere, solar radiation that comes from space. Specifically, the solar radiation that comes from the sun. How much radiation the sun is emitting toward the earth.”
Oelgoetz also hopes that future launches might lead to more interest locally in physics and aerospace engineering.
“We’re looking for a way to do outreach with this,” he said. “A fun idea is to work with kids and let them make little packages and wire up a camera or something.”
For more information on the high altitude balloon project, contact the APSU physics department at firstname.lastname@example.org.