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Launching New Ideas Over School Break

MCTC Engineering Club students prepare to launch a balloon into near-space"Do you remember fall break?" asked MCTC student Maren Hoye of the long weekend for Education Minnesota development days. "Because we don't."

Maren and four other members of the MCTC Engineering Club spent a long weekend in October culminating a year’s worth of designs, calculations, research and planning. Fortunately, the weather was perfect for balloon-watching.

MCTC Math student Kyle Thompson hatched the idea nearly a year prior to the launch. He had already started a rocket club for fellow aerospace enthusiasts, but realized one day if he wanted to launch something higher, he'd have more luck with a balloon.

Kyle gathered a team of interested students, and they spent the next 11 months preparing to launch a balloon into near-space. "We all pulled from our life experiences and what we learned in our MCTC classes," said Maren. "Everyone was really great at problem-solving."

The students joined the Engineering Club one spring and continued their work through the summer. The first problem they needed to troubleshoot was how they'd track the balloon—both after it launched and once it fell back to Earth.

Members of the MCTC Engineering Club"I studied and got my ham radio license" said Engineering Club member Madeline Forbes. "We needed to find a repeater that would pick up and amplify the signal from our transmitter, and we finally found one on top of Moos Tower at the University of Minnesota."

After nearly a year of preparation—and some help from Engineering Club advisors Joan Carter and Parke Kunkle—the club was ready to launch their long-awaited project. The day of the launch, they brought two GPS transmitters, a GoPro action camera, heat packs, one 1200 gram balloon and a helium tank.

"We were out for 16 hours that day," said Madeline. "We probably should have brought lunch."

The group launched the balloon from Big Marine Lake near the Saint Croix River and tracked its progress using the GPS signals being sent from the balloon's payload. It took two and a half hours of the balloon rising for it to expand to its maximum capacity—30 feet in diameter. That point, they calculated, was at least 85,000 feet above sea level—officially near-space.

View from a balloon launched by MCTC students  headed to near-space.After the team retrieved the popped balloon—which landed about 90 miles away in Wisconsin—they began to analyze what went well, which calculations were off and what they should do next time.

"I learned in chemistry class that the heat packs we used to keep the camera from freezing also create water as a byproduct of their chemical reaction," said Yvan Nguetio, a member of the club. "That's why condensation formed on the camera. We brainstormed a method to prevent this from happening next time."

"I'd like to reach 100,000 feet with the next balloon," said Kyle. "I'd also like to get better video and more data." The group wants to use a larger balloon for their next launch, which will need FAA clearance.

Where does someone get a balloon like this?

"Online," answered Kyle.

Click here to watch the video of the balloon's ascent.

Photos: Top: Students fill the balloon to prepare for launch. Middle, from left to right: Kyle Thompson, Yvan Nguetio, club advisor Parke Kunkle, Maren Hoye, Madeline Forbes and Keefe Tarnow. Bottom: A view captured of the balloon's ascent to near-space by an attached camera. Bottom: Members of the Engineering Club.

First published November 2012

Balloon Launch

Members of the MCTC Engineering Club collaborated on a project to send a balloon into near-space.

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