An intrepid group of Lake Mary High students spent their summer building and launching a surprisingly sophisticated weather balloon
Many amazing moments take place on the Rams’ football field at Lake Mary High School. Most of those moments, however, are confined to the field itself. But what some LMHS physics students did under the leadership of teacher Luther Davis was a little different: On a humid summer morning they used the football field to launch a weather balloon 20 miles into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Before falling back to Earth, instruments on the balloon would capture stunning views of the Florida peninsula, gather abundant scientific data, and tell the students exactly where to find it once it landed – on a stunned landowner’s property near some cows.
“It was a cool thing to take these kids along this journey, have some fun, and do some science in a relaxed atmosphere,” Luther says.
The project, a first for the ever-creative physics teacher, was at once simple in concept and audacious. About 30 Lake Mary High physics and astronomy students, most of them seniors, got involved. It would take about two-and-a-half months of planning to build and launch the balloon, with the students pretty much putting everything together from scrap materials.
Attached to the weather balloon, which was inflated with helium, were two cameras, one barometric pressure and temperature logger, and a cell phone GPS tracking system that cost all of $36.99. Liftoff took place a few weeks after the 2015-2016 school year ended.
Luther described the atmosphere on the morning of the launch as that of a theme park ride: excitement mixed with uncertainty about what to expect.
“The moment we released it, it would be out of our hands,” he says.
The playful name of the weather balloon was ROSCOE, which stood for Rams Occupy the Stratosphere with a Camera Observing Experiment. Roscoe the Ram is also the name of the LMHS mascot. ROSCOE the weather balloon was airborne for about two-and-a-half hours before it gave out. But before the equipment drifted back to land, ROSCOE surveyed the Earth below while Luther and his students drove to the predicted landing spot more than an hour away.
There were some nervous moments when ROSCOE initially failed to produce any tracking data from high altitudes.
“There was a lot of anxiety. It was a rollercoaster,” Luther says. “Then one of the students shouted out, ‘I got data, I got data!’ We were ecstatic. We were super ecstatic.”
Even better, the data indicated that the quest to retrieve ROSCOE was going better than planned. Despite reaching a height of 110,000 feet, ROSCOE landed only four miles away from its expected destination near the town of Webster. Estimating the landing that accurately was an achievement in itself, Luther says.
Through a combination of the GPS data and Google Earth imagery, the students were able to pinpoint the fallen device’s location near two trees, one of them damaged by lightning. There was a problem, however: A private field with a barbed-wire fence, pine trees, and some free-roaming cows separated ROSCOE from its rescuers.
It took some time to find the landowner, who Luther described as skeptical when told, “We’re from Lake Mary High School, and we think a weather balloon landed on your property.” But the landowner was quite impressed when the students were able to describe the lightning-damaged tree on her property, and she agreed to accompany them to retrieve ROSCOE.
“There was a huge release of tension,” Luther says of the successful retrieval. “We all hooted and hollered. We were pretty proud of ourselves.”
Aside from the pure coolness of it all, ROSCOE was an unqualified scientific success. The device captured humidity, temperature, and barometric pressure data during nearly an hour of its flight time. Luther says the data looked fantastic and was used to construct an altitude profile.
Another feat was the low cost of the project, achieved by scrimping, borrowing, and improvising. The ROSCOE team did some research and estimated that their GPS tracking device could easily have cost more than $300 if constructed entirely with retail parts.
Not everything went exactly as planned, however. The balloon took longer to inflate than expected, eating into camera time, and condensation formed inside the camera mount thanks to the humid environment, affecting some of the captured images. Easy fixes for next time, Luther says.
And he is pretty sure there will be a next time. He already has a name: ROSCOE II.
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