BANGOR, Maine — The flight lasted only two hours, but the balloon launched from Bangor High School last month is yielding months’ worth of education and scientific data.
Bangor High School students played Benjamin Franklin for one day last month, but rather than a kite and a key, they used a high-altitude research balloon packed with electronic sensors and scientific equipment.
“We’ve got at least 4,000 data points from two hours of flight,” said Bangor high science teacher Ted Taylor. “We’ve spent the last three or four days data mining and looking for trends. We started going through stuff Friday and asked them to find 10 interesting things about the data and then to present the strongest two.”
Taylor said it didn’t take long for him to realize the project would be a learning experience for teachers, as well as for students.
“One of the real interesting things is we can tell when the balloon burst, based on the temperature that was recorded at the time, but we found out we can also tell the time it burst from the oxygen level recorded,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all.”
The balloon floated as high as 95,700 feet and traveled an estimated 125 miles before coming down near a bog in Jonesboro.
“They ended up finding it in Jonesboro via GPS,” said Bangor High Principal Paul Butler, one of 300 school administrators, faculty members and students who attended the Sept. 27 launch at the Bangor High soccer field.
The launch — the first ever of a balloon that advanced at Bangor High, according to Butler — was the result of Bangor’s cooperative relationship with the University of Maine through the high school’s STEM Academy. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
“I don’t think a balloon launch itself is that rare,” said Cary James, teacher and head of Bangor High School’s science department. “I think they did one at Hermon and some others in southern Maine recently, but the difference with ours is we launched one with advanced sensors.”
The balloon itself cost $500 and carried sensitive scientific equipment such as video cameras, GPS tracking units, and ham radio transmitters provided by Rick Eason, an associate professor in UMaine’s electrical engineering department.
Some of the balloon’s “payload — instruments to measure temperature, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, and ultraviolet radiation every 5 seconds when ascending or descending — was also provided by Bangor High.
“We were able to find out it’s pretty cold in the upper atmosphere at minus 60 degrees Celsius, and there aren’t a whole lot of molecules up there,” said Cary James. “There’s also a lot of atmospheric and UV data.”
Those data are making what turned out to be a fairly involved retrieval effort worth the hassle.
“By road, it was almost exactly 200 miles away, but as the crow flies, it was more like 125 to 150,” said Taylor, who accompanied a busload of 35 students to the landing site. “It landed near a bog, and we had to cross a beaver dam just to get to it.”
Taylor chose five students to accompany Eason over the dam and help him bring the equipment back while the high school teacher rounded up the remaining students for the hike back to the bus.
James and Taylor also had a unique contingency plan, should the balloon have gone wildly off course.
“We had people on standby, including a 91-year-old pilot in Meddybemps who was going to find it,” said James. “The guy’s name is Ed Arbo. He also was prepared to use his 16-foot boat to help us retrieve it, if needed, so we had land, air and sea rescue available.”