When it came time to design his senior project, Blaine High School senior Peter Benne found himself looking at the heavens for inspiration.
But he wasn’t throwing out a skyward prayer in hopes that he would meet the requirements. Instead, he was contemplating what it would take to launch an 8'-diameter weather balloon into the atmosphere.
Benne asked Washington State University student Josh Doerksen to work with him as his mentor for the project, and set to work compiling all the materials he would need to make his endeavor successful, including parachutes, data loggers and cameras.
“He [Doerksen] had done the same project for his senior project at Lynden High School, but wasn’t able to recover his balloon,” Benne said. “Basically, I was able to learn from his mistakes.”
One change Benne made for his project was to use a GPS tracking system to keep tabs on the weather balloon while it was in flight instead of relying on a cell phone GPS system. “The cell phones rely on cell towers to transmit the signal,” Benne said.
“It’s one of the reasons he couldn’t find his balloon. I used GPS, which bounces off satellites and is more reliable.”
Benne and his father drove east of the Cascades to Walla Walla Point Park in Wenatchee to launch the balloon, so that prevailing winds wouldn’t push the balloon deep into the mountain range.
“If we had launched from Blaine, it would have ended up somewhere in the mountains and we might not have ever been able to recover it,” Benne said. “That’s what we think happened with [Doerksen’s] project.”
To document the project and the flight itself, Benne utilized GoPro video cameras in the payload of the balloon, with one focused on the horizon, and one pointed straight down at the ground. “We came away with some pretty cool video and photos,” Benne said. “But if I had to do it again, I would find some way to stabilize the payload more so it didn’t shake as much in flight.”
Benne was able to capture 88 minutes of flight-time video, but even with all his adjustments to Doerksen’s plan, he, too, almost fell victim to a lost balloon.
“We lost contact with it for a while,” he said. “GPS doesn’t really work above 60,000 feet, and the balloon, according to our data logger, rose to 83,000 feet before it burst, and then began to descend by parachute. We weren’t sure we were going to find it for a while.”
To put that in perspective, airliners typically fly at 30,000 feet.
Benne had calculated his balloon’s flight into the stratosphere would last until around 90,000 feet, but was worried that it might have ended up in an equilibrium state, where the balloon had expanded but not enough to pop and descend.
“We spent a lot of time determining how much helium we needed to use to get it that high, high enough to pop, but you never know,” he said. “The balloon was rated to 110,000' and expected to expand to 30' in diameter before popping, but that can be variable.”
He and his father kept trying to locate it though, and eventually, the GPS signal did return after the balloon made its descent.
Ten days later they were able to recover the balloon from a site just north of Moses Lake – 40 miles from their starting point.
Benne said it took a lot of planning to put the project together and it stretched his organizational skills. “There were a lot of phone calls that had to be made to get permission from the FAA to launch,” Benne said. “I had to give everyone on the FAA’s list notice that we were going to be launching the balloon 24 hours before we actually lifted off. It was a lot of work to coordinate everything.”
The high school student, who plans to attend WSU for structural engineering, said he was pleased with the results of his project, despite the shaky video, and was glad to have gone through the process. “Math and science was a big part, but so was the organization,” he said. “I really had to work on keeping myself organized through the project.”
Check back for video of the flight.