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DHS students reach new heights

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Photo submitted DHS students make final adjustments to the payload on a weather balloon launched from the school. The balloon traveled to the Hotchkiss area and was recovered from a tree on public land.

An engineering project that was a year in the making capped four years of education for several Delta High School graduates.

Hannah Owens, program manager and a 2017 DHS graduate, said the second annual high altitude challenge proved to be a memorable experience. It also reinforced her desire to pursue an engineering degree at CU Boulder.

The high altitude challenge was issued by DHS teacher Ben Magtutu. His AP Physics 2 and STEM students were tasked with sending a useful scientific payload to a confirmed altitude of 120,000 feet and returning it safely to their possession. Last year the students' project reached a confirmed altitude of 102,000 feet while measuring ionizing radiation through the stratosphere.

After brainstorming in the fall, students came up with three concepts that were "pitched" to community members and school administrators at a public event. Once the winning project was identified, all class members joined the team headed by Owens and Jaspar Carmichael. With a lighter payload, they believed their weather balloon could reach greater heights while measuirng irradiance, or solar energy, at different altitudes.

"Our hypothesis was proven true," Owens said. Their data proved that solar energy is collected more efficiently at higher altitudes.

They also got some great footage from a GoPro camera placed on the bottom of the payload. It's their hope to make the footage available to the community via individual and school Facebook pages.

Although the students did not reach the goal of 120,000 feet, their balloon did reach a height of 103,000 feet, a thousand feet higher than last year.

Owens said the original plan was to launch the weather balloon from Escalante Canyon, with the hope they'd be able to easily recover the payload in the Hotchkiss area. But after analyzing a web-based wind pattern predictor, they moved the launch site to a field at Delta High School the morning of April 18. The balloon came down in the Hotchkiss area anyway. Students tracking the balloon's progress from "ground control" in a DHS classroom were able to pinpoint the location on public land. Two students hiked in to the remote area and recovered the balloon from a tree. "It took them a few hours," Owens reported.

From the official countdown to final recovery, the launch was the culimination of a "really, really cool" project, Owens said.

Magtutu said the general goal of the high altitude challenge is to give his students exposure and experience with the engineering and design process as well as teaching 21st century skills such as teamwork, communication and planning. The long-term goal is to develop a student-designed satellite that can be launched into orbit.

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