Gunston Near Space Balloon Project


Last fall, The Gunston School’s science department head Dr. Ken Wilson presented students with a one-of-a-kind opportunity. Dr. Patrick Shanahan and Dr. Andrew Ferguson of Chestertown, MD, sponsored a project that required a very dedicated group of students. Several groups across the country have carried out similar launches, but it is believed that this is the first such balloon launch on the Delmarva Peninsula and perhaps the first launch near the Atlantic coast. The project challenged a team of approximately 25 students and 4 faculty members to send a high-altitude weather balloon to near-space with a camera attached in order to record the voyage. Led by its mission commander senior Jay Wegner, who collaborated with his faculty advisor Dr. Ken Wilson, they hoped to view Earth from an altitude greater than 10 miles.

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The goal of the project was to use a helium-filled weather balloon to take cameras and scientific instruments to “near space”, which is a region above the majority of the Earth’s atmosphere that begins at 65,000 feet. Photos taken in near space show the blackness of space and resemble photos taken from orbit. This region includes the lower reaches of the stratosphere and the ozone layer.

Students named the project Balloon Force Team 12 because the team was comprised of twelve sub-groups: Science, Payload Integration, Launch, Descent, Recovery, Communications and Tracking, Trajectory, Imaging, Safety, Team Building, Public Relations, Finance, and Creative Arts. The students chose the Latin motto: “Gaudeamus mittere in spatium vesicam”: Let us send a bladder into space. The Romans used bladders for balloons.

The students had to monitor the winds carefully to find a day on which there was minimal cloud cover and the prevailing winds would not blow the balloon out over the ocean. The project began in fall of 2012. The first balloon was launched on June 1, 2013. Students notified the relevant FAA authorities and followed FAA safety requirements for balloon launches.

The weather balloon lifted its payload to its maximum altitude. As the altitude increased, the latex balloon grew in size until it burst. The payload then descended by parachute. Two devices were placed in the payload to record and transmit GPS information that the students were able to follow online to keep track of the position of the balloon.

Mission Control was located in the Gunston Library. A map of the Delmarva Peninsula showing the real time GPS coordinates of the balloon was displayed on a TV. Students kept the Gunston community up to date via twitter on all the mission milestones. The first flight generally followed the trajectory that the students predicted using openly available software and weather data. When the payload returned to Earth, the GPS information that it emitted indicated that it had landed on an unused golf course on MD Route 404 near Denton. The students drove to that location and recovered the payload.

Gunston plans to launch balloons each year, with the goal of reaching higher altitudes and adding more scientific instrumentation to investigate the properties of the stratosphere and the ozone layer.

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