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Photo submitted Students were relieved to find the payload intact when they recovered the bright red parachute east of Crawford.
Photo submitted The weather balloon was equipped with a GoPro camera, although it failed to record the entire flight.
Photo submitted From Uravan, DHS physics students launched a weather balloon designed to gather atmospheric data. The balloon’s flight was tracked through retrieval in a remote forested area east of Saddle Mountain.

High altitude challenge nears 120,000-foot goal

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For the third consecutive year -- and to the delight of physics teacher Ben Magtutu -- AP Physics 2 students from Delta High School were able to launch a high altitude balloon, then retrieve the payload when it touched down about 71 miles from the launch site, as the crow flies.

The high altitude challenge is issued by Magtutu at the beginning of each school year. Students break into teams to develop project proposals, only one of which is ultimately selected. Students are challenged to design a unique scientific payload that can reach a minimum altitude of 120,000 feet and be returned safely to their possession.

Magtutu expects the project to adhere to all federal, state, and local laws and comply with FCC and FAA regulations; be tracked throughout the entire flight; return video/photographic evidence of the entire flight; measure temperature (inner and outer) and pressure during the flight; measure acceleration (3-axis); have a maximum mass of 500 g (including parachute and guylines); and minimize instabilities (especially spinning).

After presentations to school administrators and community members last fall, Project Zero was selected as the most feasible. The goal was to launch a weather balloon high into the air to collect pressure and temperature data to find the theoretical temperature at which molecules stop moving -- absolute zero.

While launch was expected to take place in April, students encountered a couple of delays. One was the windy weather; the other was a FCC requirement for a ham radio license for the radio transmitter in the payload. Bill Bear and Steve Schroder helped students overcome that hurdle by sharing their call sign and participating in the launch of the weather balloon from Uravan.

That site was selected after close analysis of an online weather tracking program. Students anticipated the weather balloon would enter the jet stream and be carried over Montrose to the Maher area.

But because of the size of the parachute, the payload kept sailing east, descending at a rate of seven meters per second. Students had estimated descent at 10 meters per second. A tracking team stationed at Delta High School determined the payload landed east of Saddle Mountain. The retrieval team went into action, driving with Mr. Magtutu and GPS locators to a remote site along Cow Creek. Junior Caleb Frazier said they fought their way through brush and trees, until Mr. Magtutu finally gave everyone a break and went up to a ridge to get a better look. When he spotted the bright red parachute among the foliage, he signaled excitedly to the students. As they approached the payload, the audible signal grew louder and louder. Students felt a great sense of relief, Frazier said, but they were also excited to see the payload was intact. The instruments had been packed into a balsa wood box, then sprayed with foam to keep them from shifting during the flight.

The GoPro camera was also intact, but for the third year in a row did not record the entire flight. Junior Jaspe Arias said the balloon reached an altitude of 117,000 feet, and the air temperature may have been too cold for the GoPro to operate.

Previous flights reached 102,000 and 103,000 feet above the earth using smaller weather balloons, so the decision to go with a larger balloon seemed to pay off. Keeping the payload "super light" was also key, Arias and Frazier said.

Finals took up much of the last few days of school, so the students haven't yet had a chance to look at the data. "I'm hoping we can get back together before fall," said Arias. She added that it was a great experience to travel to Uravan as a class to participate in the launch. Each student had individual responsibilities throughout the school year, but all worked together to get the project off the ground.

Frazier said it was exciting to see scientific theories incorporated into an actual project.

Both Frazier and Arias said Magtutu is a "hypnotic" teacher who makes an "ethereal subject" readily understood by every student. When the bell signals the end of class, they wonder where the time has gone. "His lessons are so captivating," Arias said.

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