Update 8:43 p.m. Tuesday from Doug Hodum: “We did retrieve the payloads from two 40+ foot trees outside Lincoln, not far from where the model predicted they would go. I have the student experiment samples, so they will be able to commence work with them tomorrow. From what I can tell, the balloon went to over 116,000 feet during its flight.”
FARMINGTON – With a payload full of science experiments, the weather balloon was launched into partly-cloudy, calm skies this morning from the practice field on the Mt. Blue Campus.
In attendance were science students and teachers from Mt. Blue and Spruce Mountain classes all looking skyward as the big white latex sphere cruised ever higher until it was a tiny dot on its way to the stratosphere.
Students in Doug Hodum’s Mt. Blue High School college prep biology classes and Rob Taylor’s Spruce Mountain Middle School gifted and talented program and the high school’s environmental science classes all have a vested interest in a successful balloon flight and eventual retrieval.
For once the payload is found sometime later today, the students’ questions of how very cold temperatures, low pressure and ultraviolet radiation at 100,000 feet will affect the subjects of the experiments they designed will be answered.
Mt. Blue 10th grade students Jordyn Lawrence and Kayla Kenney are testing the effects of high altitude on chia seed germination. The have seeds both inside a payload box and some taped to the outside of the box.
“We want to see how the cold and direct sunlight effects the seeds,” Lawrence said. By having seeds both inside and outside the box, Kenney said they’ll be able to single out how UV radiation effects seeds on the outside as compared to those in the box.
Once they get the high flying seeds back into the lab, they’ll test germination rates against a control group of chia seeds that weren’t subjected to weather extremes.
Similarly, Spruce Mountain’s Amber Delaney, launched cucumber seeds to test germination rates after exposure to the rigors at high altitude. Today’s experimentation comes as an extension of her lab work that tested fertilizer concentrations of cucumber seed germination.
“My hypothesis was all wrong,” Delaney said smiling of her experimentation in which she increased the amount of chemical fertilizer during seed germination. “I thought the more fertilizer, the better the germination would be.” It turned out that the best rate of seed sprouting success came with just plain water and that the rate dropped as the amount of chemical fertilizer increased. She said the higher the fertilizer concentration, the more difficult it became for water to move into the seeds through osmosis for successful germination.
Before Tuesday’s launch, Mt. Blue students Chance Swett, William Frederic and AJ Wilbur, have been in the biology lab feeding slime mold “oats and stuff,” Wilbur explained. The trio have watched the mold’s growth under normal, earth-bound altitudes and are now curious to see what happens after space flight.
“We want to see if it’s still living, how much it eats up” once it comes back to the lab, Frederic said.
The balloon launches began a few years ago as part of a unique program designed to provide high school students with access to equipment previously left in the hands of government agencies and advanced college programs. Three schools participated in the Astro-Scientific Ballooning Pilot Project, financed by the Maine Space Grant Consortium through a NASA Cooperative Agreement award.
Through the initial program, Hodum and his classes began a partnership with University of Maine engineering professor Rick Eason and his students to conduct a series of balloon launches. When the grant came to an end two years ago, Hodum and Eason continued to hold the launches, usually once in the fall and again in the spring, if weather permits.
With a GPS tracking system part of the payload, Eason will chase the balloon after launch until it bursts and brings its payload back down to earth. Today’s predictors, which take into account the prevailing wind direction and speeds up there, show touchdown to be near Lincoln, to the north and east of Bangor.
Although they haven’t lost a payload yet, retrieval is not always easy. Eason brings an expandable pole and is known for his tree climbing abilities. A kayak has also proved useful.
The balloon launch from Mt. Blue about a year ago under very windy conditions sent the balloon to Canada with the payload found just a few feet from water, to the north and west of Fredericton, New Brunswick. That flight took 3 hours and 12 minutes and another 42 minutes to descend.
For the first time, Hodum invited Taylor’s classes to join in on high altitude experimentation. Both teachers expect the experimentation to begin as soon as the test subjects are returned to their classes.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for the kids,” Taylor said.