Up, up and away

  • Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Photos Provided The balloon made it precisely 108,440 feet when it burst.


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On July 19 a small crowd of people assembled by a pond in the middle of a field near Ridgeville to watch a giant balloon travel more than 100,000 feet in the air to take pictures of the earth.

Two years ago Tom Lufkin founded the Trident Amateur Radio Club, of which he is now president. The club has been launching cameras, attached to a balloon, into the air to take pictures and video of the earth.

Lufkin said the club is trying to reach out to high school and college students to educate them on metric conversions, weather, wind speeds and more.

“For kids it would be a real educational experience,” he said.

This is the club’s second balloon launch in the past year. The group hopes to do it once every couple of months.

The $145 balloon is attached with a device called a spot device, which faces upward in order to make contact with an iridium satellite system in space. The spot device acts as a GPS device to club members, who call themselves “HAMs,” and a camera attached to the balloon takes the pictures.

In addition to the $145 balloon another $130 was spent on the gas used to inflate it, making the launch a nearly-$280 project.

The balloon is filled with helium until it reaches seven to eight feet in diameter and can carry up to six pounds -- that means it can carry its four-pound camera package and have “two pounds of lift leftover,” which will enable the balloon to carry the spot device and camera upwards at a rate of about 1,000 feet per minute.

Air pressure will cause the balloon to gradually expand to a diameter of 30 feet and eventually pop once it hits between 100,000 and 110,000 feet in the air. The package comes down with a parachute, after which the HAMs locate it to gather its data. It takes the balloon about two hours to travel up before it pops and falls.

The HAMs were shown how to do the balloon experiments by Todd Stowe, a Beaufort High School computer graphics teacher who has been conducting the experiment himself for five years.

“I just did it because I wanted to get pictures of space,” he said. “You can do it pretty easily and you can get as complex as you want.”

Over time Stowe has experimented with different cameras, trackers, batteries and more. Stowe has done the experiment with his own photography students, as well as students from Beaufort Middle School.

When the equipment parachutes back down to Earth Stowe and the HAMs try to predict where it will land. On July 19’s launch they predicted the package would land just south of St. George near Highway 15. After the launch Stowe told The Summerville Journal Scene that the balloon did not have quite enough helium as it usually would; it still made it 108,000 feet into the air but it traveled at about 800 feet per minute. The package came down near Holly Hill, off of Highway 178. The group had to hike through a quarter of a mile of dense brush with blackberry thorns to retrieve the package.

Stowe said the camera took about 800 pictures up in the air.

“It was an overcast day so it wasn’t the most spectacular photos,” he said, “but it was pretty good.”

The camera was set to take a picture once every 10 seconds.

“I think I’ll increase the frequency from every 10 seconds to every five seconds,” Stowe said. “More pictures – that’s the whole reason I got into this.”

Though no particular group of students attended the July 19 launch, new HAM member John Cutter attended with his two sons and their friend.

“I thought it’d be nice for them to see the balloon go up,” Cutter said.

Cutter’s son Gabriel and Gabriel’s friend Andrew Windham both said they were impressed by how big the balloon was.

“It can go up really high and show us what’s up there without using a plane or whatever,” Windham said.

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