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Up, Up, And Away!

Earlier this month, aerospace engineering students launched a scientific balloon to an altitude far above the jet stream to study environmental factors that affect aircraft design.

Students in the introductory class had hoped the 4-foot diameter balloon would reach an altitude of 100,000 feet — three times the cruising altitude of commercial airliners and the jet stream’s strongest winds — the balloon sailed just a bit under that height, reaching 98,953 feet before bursting.  The mission of the balloon was to collect and analyze its GPS position and atmospheric conditions such as pressure and temperature. That data was transmitted from the balloon to two computers on the ground. Once the balloon landed, the students learned not only the maximum altitude, but also that it reached a maximum ground speed of 85 mph.

Learning about physical principles such as how buoyancy force and drag affect the ascent rate of the balloon, were a few of the objectives of conducting the balloon launch, which took place at noon on October 10 on a farm near Plain City, northwest of Columbus. The balloon landed about 60 miles east of Plain City near Gratiot, Ohio. “The students are learning about the environment that aircraft fly through,” said Assistant Professor Jim Gregory. “That is essential in the aircraft design process. For example, how much lift the plane can generate versus its weight and how fast the aircraft can fly are dependent on what the pressure and temperature measurements are at a given altitude.”

“What we are doing is basically what the National Weather Service does at locations around the country two times every day,” Gregory explained. “They put this data into their models for forecasting.”

In addition to a weatherproof camera designed for adventurers and a consumer-grade video camera, the balloon was equipped with sensors to measure air pressure, altitude and temperature. The latex balloon eventually burst due to the changes in atmospheric pressure and descended to the ground via parachute. Gregory tracked it through its GPS readings to recover it after it landed.