With snow on the ground and temperatures hovering below freezing, students set out a tarp as they prepared to inflate a weather balloon from Lincoln Elementary Thursday morning.
Gering High School students in Justin Reinmuth’s engineering class were preparing to launch a weather balloon for the second year, only this time, the balloon launch was in front of an audience.
Lincoln Elementary students and staff headed out to the playground to watch the high school students inflate the balloon and send it into the atmosphere.
Prior to the launch, Reinmuth ran code to program one of the GoPros to begin recording video once the balloon reached 80,000 feet.
“For this year’s launch, I ran code for video into the GoPros to have one of them start recording at 80,000 feet,” Reinmuth said. “Everything went quite well.”
Seventeen students worked to prepare the code and build the box to house the GoPros and computer chips.
Arriving Thursday morning at 7:45 a.m., the students put on gloves before connecting the helium tank hose to the balloon. As the balloon began to expand and unravel, Reinmuth as well as Kris Schank, a GHS social studies teacher, reminded the students to not let their clothing nor bare skin to touch the balloon. Since the stratosphere has temperatures around negative 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the oils from a person’s skin would freeze onto the balloon, damaging the integrity of the material and potentially result in the balloon prematurely popping. Zippers on clothing can also damage the integrity of the balloon.
Once the staff and student spectators were outside, Reinmuth fully opened the helium tank to inflate the balloon quickly. Within five minutes the envelope had expanded to 8.5 feet in diameter. Then, the students reached into the box to turn on the GoPros. After the first attempt, the cameras did not come on because of the cold temperatures. Logan Andrews worked alongside Reinmuth to problem solve the situation and they were able to successfully turn the equipment on for the launch.
With everything operational, Lasane Hernandez handed Reinmuth two antennas, which were secured to the bottom of the box as part of the GPS tracking system. The antennas had to maintain a line of sight to an Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) per Federal Aviation Association regulations. That way, airplanes did not collide with the equipment, causing damage to the plane and also the school’s equipment. Also inside the container with the camera was a pocket finder to allow them to map the balloon’s location using Google Maps.
Before placing the lid on the box, Lincoln Elementary student letters were placed inside for the journey.
Ten. Nine. Eight.
Students started the countdown and began jumping up and down with excitement. Reinmuth released the balloon and the students cheered as their gaze followed the balloon up.
“I thought the balloon launch was really awesome to see,” fifth grader Avery Tofflemire said. “I am glad they picked Lincoln.” Avery’s sister Emme also enjoyed watching the balloon launch.
“I thought it was really cool and awesome that we got to have the balloon launch at our school,” she said. “I was impressed by how fast it went up.”
The students used their hand binoculars to track the ascension to the north before returning to their classrooms for a day of learning.
Following the launch, Pam Baker, Lincoln Elementary principal said, “I thought that was awesome. We’ve never had anything like this launch before and it was neat the students could experience something like this.”
Senior Felipe VanWinkle hopes the elementary students were inspired by the balloon launch.
“This year the kids got involved because they did the countdown,” he said. “We hope they think they can do something cool like that if they want to in the future.”
Following the launch, five seniors headed to their vehicles with Reinmuth and tracked the balloon to an open field near a farm between Potter and Dix. VanWinkle said the seniors had a different strategy for tracking the balloon than last year.
“Last year, we launched it and then we went out to eat before we tracked it down,” he said. “This year, we actually had to chase it.”
With the GPS pulled up on Reinmuth’s laptop, the students were able to arrive in the general vicinity of the landing before the box reached the ground.
“We had the coordinates and we put it in my phone and it was kind of go out and look for it,” VanWinkle said.
As they made the journey to Potter, VanWinkle said, “A lot of things are going through your mind, but when you see it, you just start running for it.”
From his involvement in the launch, VanWinkle learned it contains a lot of unpredictability.
The flight duration was 2 hours and 15 minutes, which was up from the 2019 flight duration of 1 hour and 51 minutes. The data recorded the balloon’s top altitude of 91,000 feet, over 800 feet higher than last year.
“After the balloon went up consistently, when it reached 60,000 to 65,000 feet, it floated at that altitude for quite a distance,” Reinmuth said. “The balloon could have held too much moisture going through the clouds, keeping it from rising.”
A video of the flight will be available on the Gering Public Schools district website, once the students review the footage and data starting Tuesday.