Up, Up and Away!

Posted: June 2, 2014

On Thursday, May 26, a group of inquisitive Upper Elementary and Middle School student engineers from Oak Meadow School (OMS) in Littleton, MA launched their Space Cat high altitude balloon from a small private airfield in southwest New Hampshire. Part of Oak Meadow’s well-rooted Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) initiative, this after school project took several months of thoughtful planning, imagination, and creativity to prepare for lift off. “The Oak Meadow environment encourages, and provides total support for, the creative expression of students,” said Mark Richards, parent of OMS student Hyatt Mayor. “Success of this, and any other educational effort, is not bounded by test scores but instead is measured in units of imagination and creative drive. The balloon payload has yet to be recovered, but the positive results of this student-led project will last a lifetime.”

The Silver Ranch Airpark in Jaffrey, NH generously accommodated the launch team with a clear field. Ordinarily a site where light airplanes come and go, this small airport earned the distinctive title, “Silver Ranch Near-space Port”, as the high altitude balloon lifted off at 1:15 PM with tracking radios, photography, and temperature sensing among its payload.

The design and launch team, including Oak Meadow students Jasmine Vogtli, Hyatt Mayor, Ben Cooper, Benjamin Tadmor, Meera Iyengar-Gupta, and Hunter O'Toole, released the balloon and watched it quickly rise for its destined 30KM (100,000 Ft.) altitude, where it was predicted that the balloon would burst, returning the payload safely to the Earth by parachute.

Tracking and recovery efforts commenced immediately after lift-off. Using an Amateur Radio APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) system, the Tracking Team comprised of Oak Meadow science teacher Kirsten Wright and all Middle School students remained at Oak Meadow to keep the Launch and Recovery Teams aware of the balloon's position and track. In addition, several Amateur Radio operators, many skilled in radio direction finding, assisted in the search which terminated at 6:30 p.m. when the signal was lost.
 Unfortunately the GPS position data ended a few hours into the flight, but a tracking beacon – another Amateur Radio system – continued to transmit until it, too, faded. Several local Amateur Radio operators, members of the Police Amateur Radio Team (PART) of Westford, MA, assisted by providing bearings to the balloon beacon signal. From these and other data it was finally determined that the balloon continued out to sea at high altitude.

Project leader and OMS parent Bob Vogtli (Jasmine Vogtli, UE), referring to a beloved stuffed animal passenger that traveled on this ultimate journey, said "it is also possible that Pouch will make it across the Atlantic. That should take her between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the winds at altitude (unknown). Also hard to predict is landfall, but it should overfly Spain or Morocco. Now, the batteries will be long dead at that point, hence no radio contact with European Amateur Radio operators will be possible. However, if it lands (and it would, as the latex will fail sometime after), then it is possible that someone will find the balloon and call us back. (It has rescue placards on all capsules.) If so, a Spanish-speaking OMS rescue team may need to be dispatched to Europe."

This mufti-faceted STEM lesson was made possible with the guidance of dedicated Oak Meadow teachers and parents, plus the enthusiasm and creativity of students. From lessons on the stratosphere to building a strong capsule and using GPS and tracking devices, students were exposed to an exciting challenge while engaging their minds with STEM activities. “The Oak Meadow education is rooted in the principles set out by Maria Montessori. It is one of unbounded opportunity,” said parent Mark Richards. “As leaders we prepared the learning environment, asked challenging questions, gently guide, and then got out of the way – allowing each student to express their creativity, intelligence, and personal responsibility.”

BREAKING NEWS 6/6/2014 ~ The launch team received a voicemail on Thursday, June, 5, at 3PM. The caller was Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Eric Hurley, captain of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) ship "Jefferson Island". This is an 110-foot long Island-class patrol boat used by the USCG for offshore patrolling.

LCDR Hurley relayed that his ship had recovered the 'OMS High-altitude balloon experiment' 7 nautical miles north of Provincetown MA. (Since the capsule has been drifting for a week now, it did not land there, but very likely far from this point.) He further relayed that the capsule will be mailed to us when they return to base.

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–Mark Richards and Arielle Driscoll

Last Updated: June 7, 2014