News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

SHS classes launch science balloons

On a clear spring day in Sisters last Thursday, the Sisters High School chemistry classes instructed by Rima Givot launched two stratospheric balloons from Sisters Eagle Airport, loaded with students’ experiments.

This is the fourth year of launching the weather balloons with students. Students learn about weather patterns, atmospheric pressure, temperature change, and UV level change, while analyzing the effect on certain materials during flight.

This project is made possible with the leadership of Steven Peterzen of the stratospheric ballooning company ISTAR, and funded through a grant recently awarded to the program by Battelle Memorial Institute, and mentorship by Rod Moorehead and Ron Thorkildson.

The students have been building their own experiments at home and collaborating virtually to build the “payload.” The balloons are inflated with helium in order to float up far into the atmosphere.

The purpose of launching the experiments into the atmosphere is to see what happens to them passing through the various layers of the atmosphere.

The payloads include a number of various experiments including fruits, bread, activated yeast, salmon eggs, feathers, and mold growth.

Cameras are also attached to the payload to capture what happens to the experiments during flight and observe the flight of the balloon.

The payloads also contain UV sensors to test the effect of sunlight at certain elevation on certain experiments.

GPS trackers are enabled to track where the balloon eventually lands.

During the preparation for launch, a few students were on site, live-streaming the launch to their classmates virtually.

“While the students will not be as active in the launch as in the past, their experiments will still get flown up so they can learn from this experience,” said Givot. “We had to get creative in collaborating during this time, but it felt like an important thing to do for the students.”

Givot delivered supplies to students’ homes and communicated online in order to pull off the experiments and launch this year.

“We did a lot of group chats and zoom meetings in order to collaborate with our classmates and team members,” said student Tatum Sitz.

Piper Adelt, sophomore at Sisters High School was in charge of running the cameras.

“I am not really a tech person, but I learned a lot and enjoyed this experience,” she said.

Peterzen, who has lived in Sisters for more than a decade, is the founder and owner of ISTAR Stratospheric Ballooning and has been working with the high school for the past six years in creating a student launch program.

“I contacted Rima about doing a student launch program here,” he said. “We got funding for it as a small program and it’s a great way for students to get experience and connections in this field and spark passion and drop seeds for potential future careers.”

This year, ISTAR obtained $16,000 in funding from the Battelle Memorial Institute for the program. It took about nine months of working with Battelle to obtain the funds, but it was worth the effort to secure the money to keep the program alive for future operations.

Battelle Memorial Institute is a private nonprofit applied science and technology development company and Peterzen has been working with them for a while to obtain the grant for the program.

“The grant will be used for furthering earth science and space programs, but it was primarily obtained for the weather balloon launch program at SHS,” he said.

Peterzen will be continuing his work with his company, ISTAR, and for Battelle eventually to test antennas for NASA systems and do further research in the Arctic Circle.

ISTAR has also teamed with Battelle to bid on the NASA stratospheric balloon program which involves managing the program and developing new research opportunities.

On Thursday afternoon, the first balloon was retrieved in Post by rancher Jim Wood — who happens to be a Sisters resident and father of Sisters High School student Lachlan Wood, who previously had participated in the balloon launch program. The initial data said that one of the balloons reached at least 88,000 feet in the atmosphere.

The second balloon was spotted by a fisherman and his wife at the Prineville Reservoir, landing in the water.

“This was the first time the balloons were both spotted and we were contacted right away instead of just tracking them, they were actually seen landing,” said Rima Givot.

After retrieving the balloons, students gathered their own experiments to collect data on what happened to them during flight.

The camera teams will also begin piecing together the footage retrieved from flight.

The weather balloon launch program will continue at Sisters High School, and according to Peterzen, with more grants and funding, can be made an available program in every school.


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