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A sky-high adventure

3/3/2014

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University set an unofficial record.

No, it didn't happen on the basketball court or wrestling mat. Instead, the school's High Altitude Research Group set a new record when it launched its balloon Friday morning at Bickle/Schmidt Sports Complex.

The weather balloon used to collect scientific data soared 88,000 feet -- 16.7 miles -- into the clear, blue sky. The former record was 87,000 feet.

"Pretty exciting," said Paul Adams, director of the Science and Math Institute and professor of physics and Anschutz professor of education at FHSU.

Three schools had boxes -- called payloads -- on the balloon, as well as FHSU's data-gathering instruments. Hitching a ride were boxes from St. Mary's Grade School in Salina, Junction City Middle School and the sixth-grade class from Stockton.

Andrea Dix, who teaches sixth grade at Stockton, attended Adams' workshop for teachers in November. The workshop was made possible by a NASA grant.

"The whole sixth-grade class came up with the experiments in the box," Dix said before the launch.

"Six of them are going to be on the chase for the balloon," Dix said. "The rest of the class will watch the launch."

Trevor Miller, 12, was one of the class members on the chase.

"It's pretty cool," he said of the balloon launch and the anticipation of finding the results of the experiments on board. "See what experiments worked, see what happens at high altitude."

The class had experiments ranging from altitude effects on a compass to collection of gamma rays.

"Then we have a Sharpie, to see if it will explode or not," Dix said with a laugh. "Just for fun."

The grant helped make it possible for other schools to take part in FHSU's balloon launches. It started as a class project three years ago, but now it's a research group of FHSU students. This is the first time other schools have been involved.

"I thought it was so good for the college kids, no reason not to do it with middle school and high school kids," Adams said. "The students doing the research agreed, and they've been helping out."

The goal of the NASA grant is to get young people interested in science. On Friday, five high schools are scheduled to launch, and another middle school in Salina has a mission planned for later this month.

"For these kids, the middle schools and high schools, it's to get them interested and excited about science and engineering," Adams said.

The hands-on experience of deciding on, then creating, a payload less than 2 pounds is part of the learning for the younger students, Adams said. The balloon is follows FAA regulations and can't have more than a 12-pound payload, so the students had to find experiments that would work under those guidelines.

"It's not just what you know, it's what you can do with what you know," he said. "We need people who are makers and doers, and this is a way to do it."

Cole Studer, a sophomore from Atwood majoring in manufacturing technology, is one of four FHSU students involved with the project.

"I really enjoy doing this," he said. "Basically sending stuff into outer space, that's what I think is cool about it."

Earl Watkins, a non-traditional engineering student from Scott City, also was involved with Friday's launch.

"It's a blast," he said. "I'm given toys to play with and put together."

The FHSU students had the weather balloon ready to launch after 1.5 hours of preparation that morning and another 30 to 40 hours of work before that. They filled the white balloon with 250 cubic feet of helium. The balloon increases in size to 8 to 10 feet in diameter when launched and 32 to 40 feet in diameter before it bursts in the atmosphere and plummets to earth.

Friday's chase took the team to a farm 5 miles outside Holyrood in Ellsworth County.

Dix was thrilled her class was able be part of the project.

"It's just an amazing opportunity for a small school like us that can't afford to do this type of stuff," she said.

A balloon launch on a grander scale might be next for FHSU.

"Next on the horizon for the college students, we're talking about around-the-world flights," Adams said. "Our flight would be a long-duration flight, that we'll never see again, but we want to fly it as far as we can around the world. That's our goal for next year."