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Austin Peay scientist helps Tennessee middle school launch high-altitude balloon over 106,000 feet

The Jackson County Middle School high-altitude balloon rose more than 20 miles into the sky, capturing stunning images.
The Jackson County Middle School high-altitude balloon rose more than 20 miles into the sky, capturing stunning images.

(Posted Aug. 13, 2020)

On a sticky August morning, Austin Peay State University’s professional mad scientist traveled to Gainsboro, Tennessee, to help Michael Vigeant’s middle school students launch a science balloon over 106,000 feet into the sky.

The Jackson County Middle School students started work on the high-altitude experiments last school year and had planned the launch the balloon in March, but the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the launch. Vigeant rescheduled the launch to coincide with the start of the new school year and enlisted Austin Peay’s veteran high-altitude balloon launcher Bryan Gaither to help.

“Thursday’s launch was flawless, much to the credit of Bryan Gaither and Austin Peay,” Vigeant said about the Aug. 6 launch. “His equipment and expertise were invaluable, because we would have lost the payload without his help.”

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Gaither helped with inflating the balloon and with tracking the payload to a tree near Arat, Kentucky, after the balloon burst in the stratosphere, and the payload returned to the ground. But Vigeant’s students led the bulk of the design and problem-solving in the project.

“The students were in charge,” Vigeant said. “I was more of a guide. We had the greatest success to date, a 106,832-foot burst altitude (more than 20 miles up!), 7,500 photos before the GoPro gave out and many hours of video.”

But the project’s biggest goal was inspiring the students “to rise above and see that science is an exciting and dynamic field,” Vigeant said. “All data were collected and can be used throughout our county’s math and science classes.

This Google Earth image shows the path of the balloon.
This Google Earth image shows the path of the balloon.

“But the greatest success is how excited my eighth graders are to start work on this year’s payload,” Vigeant added. 

TVA grant backs balloon launch 

To help pay for the project, Vigeant applied for a $1,200 Tennessee Valley Authority grant to buy the balloon hardware. The focus originally was to teach third graders about weather, weather patterns and how such patterns affect the Tennessee Valley. 

Weather and climate definitely affected this balloon’s flight path and landing, forcing it into a serpentine path as it climbed into the sky and fell back to the earth. And flight cameras captured stunning images above the clouds of a far-off storm system.

The Jackson County Middle School payload included several cameras and some nifty flotation devices in case it landed in the Cumberland River.
The payload included several cameras and some nifty flotation devices in case it landed in the Cumberland River.

When Vigeant switched to middle school, he brought the project with him.

“With the change in grades and schools, our goals moved to a more STEM and engineering focus,” he said. “Our problem was camera life and batteries lasting long enough.”

The students succeeded, Vigeant said. “One camera lasted from launch to tree landing!”

The payload landed 60 feet high in a pine tree along the Cumberland River in Kentucky.
The payload landed 60 feet high in a pine tree along the Cumberland River in Kentucky.

Ending up on the wrong side of the river … and in a tree 

After the balloon rose to over 106,000 feet, it burst just north of the Kentucky state line and started back to earth. The balloon landed in a tree south of the Cumberland River near Arat, Kentucky, more than an hour’s drive northeast from Gainsboro. 

Vigeant described the landing location this way: The payload “did land in a tree in a very unforgiving location in Kentucky about 40 miles due north of us.”

The recovery team initially drove to the north side of the river, where a tracker last indicated the payload. But payload drifted farther south to the other side of the river. The team drove another hour to get to the other side.

The recovery team, led by APSU’s Bryan Gaither, hiked through wooded and hilly terrain in Kentucky to find the payload after the launch.
The recovery team, led by APSU’s Bryan Gaither, hiked through wooded and hilly terrain in Kentucky to find the payload after the launch.

Gaither described the trek to find the payload on Facebook: “We found the payload after some gnarly hiking with 40 pounds of climbing gear on my back. However, it was 50-60 feet in a huge dense pine tree, and it was easier to just free climb it. … The lower portion of the payload was literally being held in the tree by two USB connections.” 

Gaither posted a photo of himself looking exhausted and “soaked with sweat and covered in pine sap/bark.”

Vigeant said his eighth graders are excited to redesign the payload to be less likely to cling to a tree.

Meet the Jackson County students

The students who worked on the project are Savannah Agee, Abigail Scoggins, Erin Davidson, Jenna Mayberry, Madelyn Mayberry, Jonah Gentry and Bradly Caudill.

To learn more

Gaither’s official job title is professional mad scientist at Austin Peay, but he’s also the lab manager for the Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy

To learn more about Jackson County Middle School, visit https://jcms.jacksoncoschools.com/.

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