Up, up and away: Seattle students launch balloons in Moses Lake

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Charles H. Featherstone/Columbia Basin Herald Seattle Academy seniors Noah Rose-Ledesma, McKenzie Carlson, Avidan Baral, and Johnathan Liebel (crouching) prepare their weather ballon for launch.

MOSES LAKE — It turns out, Moses Lake is the perfect place to launch a weather balloon.

“It’s flat,” said Avidan Baral, a Seattle Academy senior. “Most of the surrounding area is flat, except for the river, which shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“It’s just the perfect place,” Baral added.

Baral, along with two dozen other Seattle Academy seniors, is helping to set up equipment, prepare experiment platforms, and eventually inflate helium balloons. Four teams are sending experiments aloft, everything from a solar panel to measure the strength of sunlight, to sensors that measure solar radiation, to avocado toast.

Because avocado toast might taste different after being at high altitude for a bit.

According to senior McKenzie Carlson, this is the primary project for their innovations class, a year-long course on science and history.

“Basically, our challenge is to build and launch a high altitude balloon,” she said. “Our goal is to reach 90,000 feet, or as close to 90,000 feet as we can get.”

Carlson, whose four-member team is sending the solar panel aloft, said the Styrofoam cooler containing their equipment contains a small computer, a GPS transponder, seniors to measure temperature, pressure, altitude and orientation, and a 360-degree camera to record both the ascent and the descent.

The students weigh their experiment packages carefully, and then calculate how much helium they need to get to 90,000 and have the balloon burst.

And they almost all overfill their balloons.

“We’re hoping to come down somewhere between Sprague and Harrington,” Baral said.

“This is about creative problem solving, putting them in tough situations, and having them figure it out,” said Kysie Taylor, a Seattle Academy science teacher. “And they are doing that right now.”

In fact, Baral and Carlson said the students did nearly all the work on this project — designing the experiments, building the packages, promoting the event on social media and a web site, and even selecting the site and date of the launch and securing approval to use the fairgrounds from the Grant County Commission and launch the balloons the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We notified them, but if your payload is less than six pounds, you don’t need to get permission,” Baral said.

Baral, Carlson, and Noah Rose-Ledesma let go of the first balloon while their teammate Natalie White streams it live. The balloon heads north as it takes off, drifting over the Port of Moses Lake and then catching prevailing winds to the east as Baral tracks it in his cell phone.

The GPS transponder will work until the balloon hits 21,000 feet or so, Baral said. After that, it won’t work again until their science package parachutes down later in the afternoon.

Later in the afternoon, Baral said they found their experiment package about where they expected — near where SR-23 crosses Crab Creek in Lincoln County, about halfway between Harrington and Sprague.

Of course, as with any science experiment, the work isn’t done until all the data is examined thoroughly.

“We’re so glad that we recovered it!” Baral said in a text message. “We’re looking forward to editing the footage and analyzing the data we collected!”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com

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