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May 19, 2014

AHS students use weather balloon to capture Earth's curvature

— Four Athens High School engineering students have literally reached new heights — the stratosphere.

The four young men including Robert Autrey, Reggie Battles, Conlon Farmer and Benton Key recently completed a project they believe hasn’t been accomplished by any other high school students in this part of the state.

The challenge by their engineering II instructor Michael May was to design a payload that would take video of the curvature Earth and the darkness of space. They dubbed the project “Reaching New Heights.”

The students designed and built a 2 1/2-pound payload that contained three video cameras. The payload was attached to a parachute and a weather balloon containing helium.

Students worked on the project for about three months, according to Autrey. They had to write progress reports and keep an engineering notebook.

Students constructed the payload using a minnow bucket with plexiglass windows. “Hot Hands” or hand warmers were used to keep the electronics warm. Two Kodak PlaySports and a GoPro Hero3 were used to capture footage.

“We did a lot of testing with cameras, checking battery lives and how long they would record,” Farmer said. “Also, how cold it got the higher you got in the atmosphere. We did a lot of tests to make sure to control everything we could.”

Two years ago, another group of Athens students attempted the flight, but the electronics overheated before getting above the clouds.

This year’s students used temperature probes and the lunchroom freezer to collect and analyze data to “fine tune” the internal temperature of the payload.

The payload along with the parachute was thrown off the Golden Eagle football stadium to ensure the survival of the electronics and predict the descent speed close to the ground.

The launch was set April 26 from the Athens High School campus.

The ascent took an hour and a half as the payload climbed almost 20 miles above Earth’s surface.

“We sent it up about 90,000 to 100,000 feet,” Battles said.

During the flight, video captured images of Athens, Decatur, Madison, Huntsville and Scottsboro. Wheeler and Guntersville lakes were also observed in the footage.

“Definitely the curvature of the Earth was my favorite part,” Key said. “But also we had a camera on the bottom that captured footage of the bucket going up. It got all of northern Alabama.”

The payload traveled through thermal winds also known as jet stream. At that point, the camera is seen shaking and flipping, according to the students.

As the balloon ascended it expanded due to the decrease in pressure and altitude.  The temperature was approximately minus 50 degrees.

The balloon expanded from 6 feet in diameter to 20 feet before it burst. The descent took 30 minutes.

The payload, containing three camera views and a GPS transmitter, floated down by parachute.

“It went up and came down pretty fast,” Farmer said.

The payload landed in Section, 60 miles from the launch site. All electronics survived the crash.

“Section is directly south of Scottsboro,” Autrey said. “Coach May called the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and one of their deputies picked it up and took it to the Scottsboro Courthouse.” May retrieved the payload at the courthouse. 

The payload landed further away than students thought it would. “We figured out the winds down here do not have anything to do with it,” Autrey said. We thought it would go up, go one way and then come back the other way, but the thermal winds have more to do with it than the actual winds down here. The thermal winds are what carried it farther out.”

The project cost $1,200, according to the students. They raised the money through grants and class fees.

Battles said the project allows students to see the different sectors of engineering.

“There are so many different fields in engineering that are interesting,” he said.

In fact, the students are already interested in engineering beyond high school.

Farmer, a junior, would like to become involved in agricultural engineering or forestry.

Battles, a senior, plans to attend Tuskegee University and major in mechanical engineering.

Autrey, also a senior, would like to mix pre-med and engineering into possibly biomedical engineering.

Key is headed to UAH to study mechanical engineering. He would like to work for NASA. 

The four young men appreciate their instructor.

“He is really good about letting you figure it out for yourself,” Farmer said.

“He is very inspiring,” Autrey added. “One of the best teachers there is,” said Battles.

He did, however, mess with the students a little after the project.

“He texted us all and said something happened and we didn’t get the picture that we wanted,” Farmer said. “When we came in the school Monday, he showed us the video and it shocked us.”

“They caught some incredible footage,” May said.  “All in the name of science education and fun.”

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