GoPro camera recovery amazes physics students

By Pat Sunderland

Delta High School AP Physics 2 and STEM students wrapped up the 2015-16 school year by launching a large weather balloon into the atmosphere. The balloon reached an altitude of 102,000 feet above sea level before coming down on a ranch between Cedaredge and Hotchkiss. Students were able to successfully track and recover the balloon, but a GoPro camera attached to the balloon was lost somewhere along the flight. Its whereabouts were a mystery until last week, when a 91-year-old Cedaredge resident called Delta High School to report she'd found the camera, clearly marked with the school name, in her back yard.

On Friday, this year's AP Physics 2 students watched the video from the camera as the balloon was launched from Fruita-Monument High School. The launch took place from Fruita to facilitate recovery in Delta County.

The balloon was blown briefly to the west, then turned back to the southeast as it gained altitude. The balloon traveled over Palisade, then somewhere over Grand Mesa the GoPro lost battery power and quit transmitting.

At Delta High School, "mission control" maintained radio contact with the balloon and calculated its speed at 17 mph as it gained altitude. Students on the bus making the return trip from Fruita-Monument were also able to track the balloon on their smart phones. When the balloon landed, they quickly scooped it up and returned to DHS.

"It's really exciting to get the camera back," said senior Beau Byers. "The coolest thing is the video evidence of the balloon's flight."

The high altitude challenge was issued by DHS teacher Ben Magtutu, who challenged his students to send a useful scientific payload to a minimum altitude of 120,000 feet and return it safely to their possession.

The balloon reached 102,000 feet, ascending and descending precisely as the students had calculated and landed in the area they expected. Total flight time was two hours and 40 minutes.

Magtutu has issued the same challenge to this year's students and they're currently brainstorming how to cut the 2,200-gram payload to 500 grams so the balloon will reach 120,000 feet.

Last year's balloon carried a geiger counter to measure the amount of radiation as the balloon gained altitude. "Project Gamma" demonstrated, as the students theorized, that the relationship between height and radiation is linear.

This year, Byers is advocating for an analysis of time dilation, but other teams have ideas of their own. The winning team will be selected after a multi-step process; the launch window opens April 1.

Magtutu said the general goal of the high altitude challenge is to expose students to the engineering and design process as well as 21st century skills such as teamwork, communication and planning. The long-term goal of the project is to develop a student-designed satellite that can be launched into orbit.