Student Launches Weather Balloon Into Stratosphere

18 Miles High: Stratford Senior Launches Weather Balloon Into Stratosphere
Posted on 04/01/2021
Stratford senior student

Sam Sands has always been fascinated by space. Last month he got closer than most people ever get, even though his feet never left Earth.

Sam, a senior at Stratford STEM Magnet High School, launched a weather balloon from a friend’s farm in Fairview on Saturday, March 6, to collect air quality data for his Interdisciplinary Science Research senior capstone project. The balloon ascended to 95,000 feet – that’s 18 miles high – before it popped and eventually landed west of Chattanooga.

Sam outfitted the balloon with a camera (watch the full video of the journey below), a GPS unit that communicated with his phone, and two pieces he built with an open-source electronics platform called Arduino: an air quality sensor and a second GPS unit that tracked and logged data. He put the electronics in a foam cooler with a hand warmer to keep them warm enough to operate as they reached altitudes with temperatures that can drop as low as 60 degrees below zero. He said the air quality sensor tracked particulate matter that shows how healthy the air is. Both sizes of particles he was interested in – 2.5 micrometers and 10 micrometers – disappeared after about 40,000 feet, indicating very healthy air at that altitude.

Sam said he first tried to launch a balloon when he was in middle school, but he didn’t have the necessary funding. With support from David Peters, CEO of Universal Logic, a Nashville company that develops artificial intelligence products, he was able to get off the ground this time around, though he still experienced some very useful trial and error.

“I learned so much from this, especially since my first attempt at a launch for this project failed due to some electronics issues and lack of helium,” Sam said. “If I had succeeded the first time, I still would have learned so much, but working through the issues gave me a lot of experience in how not everything is going to work out perfectly the first time.”

After he graduates from Stratford this spring, Sam plans to attend Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., and study mechanical engineering.

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