SWCHS Launches High-Altitude Balloon: “Operation: Starburst”

SWCHS Launches High-Altitude Balloon: “Operation: Starburst”

Published March 3, 2023

On Tuesday, February 28, SWCHS launched the 2nd high-altitude balloon: “Operation Starburst” to near space from the Southwest Christian parking lot. Five adults and 46 students from the Earth & Space and Physics classes participated in the launch. The team launched the balloon from the Southwest Christian parking lot at 10:30 a.m. It landed on a farm in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

Roughly 900 high-altitude weather balloons are launched globally every day to collect data on temperature, humidity, atmospheric gases, barometric pressure, jetstream winds, etc.  The SWCHS balloon was registered to fly with the FAA and was tracked by a flight group out of Houston, Texas.

Here is the project overview according to Dr. Benson.

The students in my Earth & Space Science class have been learning about the atmosphere, basic meteorology, and what high-altitude balloon research entails. Some of our labs have introduced students to following & predicting jet stream patterns, ground wind speeds, temperature gradients, and flight predictors. We have watched videos of HAB research & launches and run some flight predictions of our own every class for the past few weeks. This will be my fourth launch, and I’m just as excited as I was the first time. I have shared this information with my two physics classes as well, which is why I am grateful for the school’s support to provide transportation for nearly 50 students so that those who are interested can join in on the adventure.

On Tuesday, we connected the following pieces together: a hydrogen-filled balloon, a six-foot parachute, a smaller balloon for inside the parachute, two different GPS tracking devices, a radar reflector, and a payload box carrying three GoPro cameras (up, horizon, & down). The balloon was filled with enough hydrogen to offset the weight of the system and acquired an ascent rate of 5 to 7.5 meters/second.

We prayed as a group, released Operation Starburst into the lower atmosphere, and watched as it shrank into the blue sky ascending to nearly 100,000 feet. The crew of 50 students jumped into three school vans and began tracking Operation Starburst through its journey.

The GPS tracking system we used has been a part of over 400 launches with a retrieval rate of 99.7%. The GPS transmitters sent tracking signals via Iridium satellites roughly every 30-60 seconds and we reconciled those marks with a driving map. The system reached a height of roughly 19 miles up, traveling through the entire troposphere and into the stratosphere (near space) at which point the balloon burst due to the higher pressure inside compared to outside roughly 90 minutes after lift-off.

The balloon started at about six feet in diameter and grew to about 27 feet in diameter prior to bursting. When the balloon exploded, the system experienced a free-fall and it descended at roughly seven meters per second for about 45 minutes to its final destination.

The intention for our students was to gather data and flight images that showcase God’s order & beauty in creation and participate in the real work of scientists adding to the collective database of other HABs that meets a real need.