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Stockbridge STEM class gathers data from high-altitude balloon launch

Stockbridge High School students prepare to launch their CubeSat device aboard a high-altitude balloon in Olivet.
Kevin Lavery
/
WKAR
Stockbridge High School students prepare to launch their CubeSat device aboard a high-altitude balloon in Olivet.

Stockbridge High School is well known for its unique STEM programming.

Over the years, students in the school’s Special Projects Lab have built robotic farm tools, undersea submersibles and a mock-up lunar vehicle.

These young inventors always have their heads in the clouds. As WKAR’s Kevin Lavery reports, that’s exactly where they’re taking their latest project.

(LAVERY): When I was in high school, I was obsessed with this mysterious plastic cube whose sides pivoted through a seemingly endless combination of colors.

Back then, I wasn’t really thinking about puzzles, permutations and problem theory.

I just wanted to line up the nine colored squares on each side…which I never quite managed to do.

Fast forward to now.

Stockbridge SeniorJack Hammerberg is just as fascinated with cubes as I was. But he’s got one that he helped design…and it’s so much more than a simple game.

So long, Rubik. Hello Raspberry.

“It has two cameras and a Raspberry Pi, which is a full-blown computer inside of it,” Hammerberg said. “These are data recorders.”

Jack is holding a CubeSat.

This 10-centimeter device is a low-orbit satellite that measures an array of atmospheric conditions: wind, temperature and humidity.

When I met Jack and his classmates, they were preparing to put their CubeSat to the test.

This idea is probably the craziest thing we’ve done yet.
Stockbridge STEM teacher Robert Richards

Stockbridge has a long tradition of developing real-world engineering projects.

The school is perhaps best known for its underwater robotics, which have been used to find downed World War II aircraft in the South Pacific.

Now, the team is reaching for the sky.

“This idea is probably the craziest thing we’ve done yet,” Stockbridge STEM teacher Bob Richards said.

Richards is helping his students launch their CubeSat aboard a high-altitude balloon.

They’ll record data and recover it after landing.

Jack Hammerberg hopes their CubeSat will make it through its trial run.

“We’re not entirely sure how well it will survive up in the upper atmosphere, but that’s the point of the high-altitude balloon, obviously,” he said. “So, we’re really excited to see what sort of data and what sort of results we can get from that.”

On a partly cloudy fall day in Olivet, a handful of students kneel on a black tarp, inspecting their gear.

Brandon Pearson is directing their pre-flight routine. He’s the director of Near Space Education, an Indiana-based STEM organization that helps students get their experiments off the ground.

“We already have the payloads all laid out and we’ve got our parachute with a little balloon inside, so the last step now is to fill our main flight balloon, which is going to carry us up to around 80,000 to 90,000 feet up into the atmosphere,” Pearson said.

The team predicts the balloon could travel as far as Ohio, rising far higher than the cruising altitude of commercial jets.

Still, the authorities need to know what’s coming through the air space, so Pearson calls the Cleveland airport.

A few more checks and then the moment arrives.

It’s a flawless launch.

The Stockbridge balloon payload was aloft for about three hours.

It landed intact near Pittsfield Township outside Ann Arbor, roughly 80 miles from its launch site in Olivet.

The students are already analyzing their data, including some impressive color photos of the curvature of the Earth.

The Stockbridge Special Projects Lab captured this image of Earth high above southern Michigan using a CubeSat device.
Courtesy
/
Stockbridge High School Special Projects Lab
The Stockbridge Special Projects Lab captured this image of Earth high above southern Michigan using a CubeSat device.

Just weeks into the start of the school year, the Stockbridge Special Projects Lab already has a lot of work behind it.

The memory of the launch is likely to stay with student Eliana Johnson for a long time.

“Today, just seeing it all come together and just being able to see the finished product and go, ‘we did that,’” Johnson said. “That’s just truly incredible.”

Just seeing it all come together and just being able to see the finished product and go, we did that. That’s just truly incredible.
Stockbridge student Eliana Johnson

But there’ll be little time to reminisce.

With a proven high-altitude balloon flight to its credit, the Stockbridge Special Projects Lab will be hard at work in the months ahead.

Their next launch will be a suborbital flight from Wallops Island, Virginia in early 2023.

Their CubeSat will travel 65 miles above the Earth onboard a NASA rocket.

And there’s one more balloon mission in the works.

The Stockbridge students have set their sights on April 8, 2024.

That’s the day they hope to launch another CubeSat high above Ohio to soar into the daytime darkness of the next total solar eclipse.

Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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