Boy Scouts troop launches high-altitude balloon
Boy Scouting is more than learning to tie knots and build a campfire as a local troop recently showed by launching a balloon more than 100,000 feet into the stratosphere, calculating its path and where it would land.
Despite their meticulous figuring and computer simulations, their helium-filled balloon veered off the projected course a bit, and the scouts had a wild pursuit to reclaim it.
"My favorite part was chasing the balloon. The overall running after it, trying to figure out where it went," said Max Reynolds, a member of Scout Troop 544 and seventh-grader at H.B. Lee Middle School.
The high-altitude balloon project was the brainchild of Scoutmaster Phil Foss, an electrical engineer and facilities manager at ON Semiconductor in Gresham.
"We started the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program for the troop. We wanted something really interesting for them. We have to compete with screens now. And this project goes back to traditional scouting values," Foss said.
There were nine merit badges available with this project, said Jeff Reynolds, Troop 544 dad who helped out.
After Foss introduced the idea, "the kids put this together," he said.
The scouts had to figure out how to get the 15-foot latex weather balloon and the attached camera and additional payload up in the air. They had to calculate its expected path figuring for wind and weight of the payload. They also had to design a container that would withstand the flight and land it back on Earth with the camera, timer and other equipment in one piece so the scouts could retrieve the photos they took of the planet.
Getting to launch involved mastering numerous and complex skills. The scouts had to learn the basics of GPS, wind and navigation. The troop went to local parks and trained using orienteering courses to pinpoint locations using a map and compass. They wrote some simple computer programs, extracting data from web pages.
They also had to design the apparatus and meet safety requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration, while calculating how much the GPS beacon, camera and other equipment would weigh and determine the best type of container. The camera was set to take a photo every five seconds.
"They brainstormed different packaging, a bucket, a wooden frame and finally decided on a styrofoam cooler," Foss said, noting the project also required a tank of helium, the camera, GPS beacon, power source, rigging and other materials.
"They also needed to plan a 'power budget.' They needed a battery that was not too heavy, but would also power the equipment the length of the flight," Foss said.
The scouts engaged in fundraising to cover the $500 cost of the balloon and equipment.
Permits are not required to send up such a balloon, but it must meet criteria so as not to damage other aircraft in the unlikely event of a collision. For example, the string that tethers the payload to the balloon has to be breakable at a certain force, and the payload cannot weigh more than 4 pounds.
After extensive calculations and planning, Troop 544 decided Brothers, Ore., about 42 miles southeast of Bend on Highway 20, would be a good launch spot. They assembled the parts in a field and launched.
The balloon went up to about 107,000 feet — into the second layer of Earth's atmosphere known as the stratosphere — or a little more than 20 miles in altitude, while traveling 75 miles during the two-hour flight. There was some signal trouble, which complicated the task of tracking the balloon. After regaining the signal, the craft was found on the ground about 10 miles away from its expected target.
For about three hours the scouts drove through the hills, hiked through a canyon, and using a directional antenna finally figured the balloon was behind a barn on private property.
"I think the chase was the fun part for them and the retrieval of the payload."
The scouts found the property owner and asked for permission to retrieve their balloon.
"At first he was reluctant, but when he saw the scouts, he was very accommodating," Foss said.
The kids, and adults too, were excited by the photographs. One showed an aircraft flying way below the balloon.
"The pictures were really cool," Max Reynolds said. "The pictures where we could see the curvature of the earth were epic."