DHS physics students aim for new heights

By Pat Sunderland

Absolute zero has been declared physically impossible due to the third law of thermodynamics. Entropy of a system can never reach zero, students from Delta High School learned during their research.

But the school's AP Physics 2 and STEM students are determined to shed light on what's been called a lost cause. "Bunch of sissies!" Project Zero team members Jordan Gerlach, Ayden Tucker and Vicente Trevino call the scientists who have proclaimed achieving absolute zero is absolutely impossible.

As part of the high altitude challenge issued by physics instructor Ben Magtutu, they plan to launch a weather balloon high into the air to collect pressure and temperature data. They will then plot the readings on a volume v. temperature graph and extrapolate the data to zero to find the theoretical temperature at which molecules stop moving.

The high altitude challenge, now in its third year, challenges students to design a unique scientific payload that can reach a minimum altitude of 120,000 feet and be returned safely to their possession. They've been brainstorming ideas and putting together proposals since early fall. On Dec. 8, three groups of students pitched their ideas and fielded questions from a group of community members and school administrators.

They covered several facets crucial to a successful launch, including FAA/FCC regulations, materials, tracking, communication and recovery, instrumentation, design, cost, feasibility and impact.

Claire Corbasson, Lucy Streich and Berenice Rascon dubbed their proposal "Apodeixi," the Greek word for proof, because they planned to measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to prove climate change and trigger more environmentally conscious habits.

Jaspe Arias, Caleb Frazier, Brianna Rapozo and Isaac Timbreza, Team Beyond Limits, proposed to measure greenhouse gases in an effort to determine if the burning of fossil fuels is connected to recent natural disasters.

After give-and-take with the audience members, Project Zero was selected as the most feasible. While only one project is funded, all students will have a role in project development and launch, with one student dedicated solely to ensuring compliance with FAA regulations.

The students plan to use a slightly larger weather balloon than in past years. For one thing, their payload is a bit heavier. A styrofoam box will be coated in protective flex seal and filled with redundant pressure/temperature gauges and GoPro cameras to make sure they get the data they're after. They also want a bigger balloon because they're determined to reach the goal of 120,000 feet. Previous teams have reached 102,000 and 103,000 feet above the earth using smaller weather balloons.

Before the payload is launched -- hopefully in April -- it will be weighed to allow team members to predict the flight path and velocity of the balloon, to assist with recovery. They want to launch the balloon from the football stadium so the two GoPro cameras will capture footage of the school and surrounding area. A ham radio tracker and audio beacon will assist with recovery after the payload has safely landed. In the audience was a member of the local ham radio club who offered to assist the team member who will be selected to acquire an amateur radio license, in compliance with FCC regulations.

Magtutu expects the project to adhere to all federal, state, and local laws and comply with FCC and FAA regulations; be tracked throughout the entire flight, including at elevations above 60kf; return video/photographic evidence of the entire flight; measure temperature (inner and outer) and pressure during the flight; measure acceleration (3-axis); have a maximum mass of 500 g (including parachute and guylines); and minimize instabilities (especially spinning).