By Sabrina Zearott and Joanna Steward, College of Arts & Sciences
A Cougar flag attached to a weather balloon recently launched from the center of the Pullman campus reached nearly 100,000 feet. The flight was part of a WSU Physics and Astronomy Club student project; now the flag is up for auction (see http://www.ebay.com/itm/Phyiscs-Astronomy-Club-WSU-Flag-Post-Flight-/251531402832?).
Launched from the roof of the Terrell Library during WSU Mom’s Weekend in April, the balloon was projected to reach an altitude between 40,000 and 60,000 feet, said Nicholas Cerruti, senior physics instructor and club faculty advisor. The team was surprised by the altitude data from the internal monitor of the recovered balloon.
Jesse Miller, club president and a recent 2014 physics graduate, said team members initially thought there was a glitch in the data.
“I was kind of dubious at first because there was data recorded for the first half hour, and then it cut out for a really long time,” he said. “Then there is 15 minutes of data clustered right around the peak.”
That peak, said Eric Beier, club treasurer and a junior in physics, was officially 98,093 feet above Earth. That altitude is believed to be second only to that of a Cougar flag that accompanied WSU alumnus John Fabian, ’62, on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985.
Landing as predicted
The balloon’s predicted flight path, based on jet stream mapping software, set the landing site on the Clearwater Plateau, about a 90-minute drive southeast of Pullman. The jet stream shifts slightly every day, so the launch needed to be carefully timed to avoid pushing the balloon too far south or east; if the balloon descended into Hell’s Canyon or landed in Idaho’s vast stretches of forest, recovery would be difficult.
The balloon kit purchased by the club included a GPS unit to track its trajectory. As the balloon and flag rose into the sky after the launch, club members watched the signal head east over Idaho.
Even with the higher altitude, the balloon did land in the predicted region of the plateau. The recovery team easily retrieved it from a farmer’s field near Nez Perce, Idaho.
Above curve of the Earth
A GoPro camera fitted to the apparatus captured the flag’s ascent. The two-hour footage shows the rolling hills of the Palouse quickly giving way to white clouds scattered across the sky. Thirteen minutes into the flight, the balloon encounters a hailstorm, but four minutes later the sky is clear and blue.
At the balloon’s high point, the sun and blackness of space are visible above the curve of the Earth as the flag flutters at the bottom of the screen.
Why the balloon went so high remains a mystery. Weather balloons are designed to self-deflate and return to Earth: as a balloon rises, the surrounding air pressure becomes lower; higher pressure inside means the balloon expands until it leaks or pops.
The altitude a balloon reaches depends upon how much helium is in it.
May become annual event
“More helium would have a lower maximum altitude, since the pressure inside the balloon would be greater and the balloon would pop sooner,” said Cerruti. If the balloon has less helium, it should rise more slowly but stay aloft longer.
Chad Garrison, flight commander and physics major, said the goal of the project was to design a high-altitude physics experiment platform that could be repeated by future club members. The flag launch, he said, allowed for “alpha testing of the apparatus, making a live launch to understand the physics and determine procedures for future experiments.”
The club hopes the balloon launch will become an annual event, much like their popular fall Dad’s Weekend pumpkin drop from the 12th floor of Webster Hall.
The flag auction is open until noon Saturday, May 24. Proceeds will benefit the WSU Physics and Astronomy Club.
Learn more about the project, see a video of the launch and watch the full flight footage at http://cas.wsu.edu/physics-astronomy/flag-auction.html