Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
Year 9 & 10 students in the Wellington region have found out how failures are just as important as successes, thanks to a weather balloon launch that almost didn’t happen.
The looks on the students’ faces said it all: the tank was emitting a near-deafening hiss of gas, but the balloon was not inflating. Something was wrong.
Raven Duffin, one of the students about to help fill the balloon, was standing close to the tank when she saw that experienced MetService Meteorologist Steve Knowles could not turn off the gas.
Alarmed, she quickly moved away from the balloon-filling shed and joined the rest of the teens on the open grass nearby, who were also wondering if things had turned dangerous.
Fortunately the tank contained helium rather than the flammable hydrogen used to fill most weather balloons, so Steve calmly told everyone to just move away to a more open space and let the leak run its course until the tank was empty.
The twenty Year 9 and 10 students from across the Wellington region had spent all of the previous day and all morning assembling and adjusting their payload: a polystyrene box containing a radio transmitter, a GPS tracker, an iPhone 4, a camera, and a landing parachute. They were all ready to go and now it looked like the big moment wasn’t going to happen.
Julia Delogu, an Educator at Space Place who came up with the project idea, immediately started calling around as soon as the leak was confirmed.
Whole tanks of helium can be tricky to get, never mind within tight deadlines. Because of the high winds that day, the launch site had already been moved from Porirua to MetService’s base in Paraparaumu – meaning that the Wellington-based helium supplier was even further away.
Julia told us that her inspiration for the project, called Unlocking Space and Weather, came from US companies who had already launched balloons in New Zealand.
“I thought it would be really cool to do something like this for students so they can see what it’s like to do something similar to what those big guys are doing.”
Fails make us do things better
While waiting to hear back from her contacts, Julia and MetService Communications Meteorologist Lisa Murray both explained to the students that technical hitches like this were a normal part of research.
“More often than not, the first attempt for any new project doesn’t work how you want it to,” Lisa explained to the students.
“You have to learn from it, make adjustments and try again. So the things that don’t work are just as important as the things that do.”
“There’s always options,” Julia said. “Remember that we still have one tank of helium that we can use."
"It’s not gonna lift our payload but we can still launch the balloon in the air with it. Or maybe we can put only the tracker on the balloon – that’s another option.”
To everyone’s relief, Steve found a helium tank from a local company. But it was almost 2pm when the tank arrived so the students were now worried they wouldn’t have enough time to release the balloon and still make it back for their after-school activities.
It was thankfully smooth sailing from then on and the students were able to pull it all together at the last possible minute. They were really excited to be able to finally release the balloon and its full payload into the sky.
“The best part for me was seeing how fast the balloon went up and also how big it got when we were filling it with the gas,” said student Katie Girvan.
Julia revealed that the balloon had zoomed off at a speed of about 8 metres per second. It also reached 17 kilometres - which is twice as high as the summit of Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
A few days later, Julia told us they could see from its tracked flight path that the balloon had travelled about 70km towards the east coast in just over an hour.
“The balloon landed in the Wairarapa and I was able to narrow down its location,” she said. “The property owner was then able to find it and we now have it back – which means that many of the components will hopefully be able to make the journey again in the future.”
The students’ work is even more impressive when considering that it took NASA six weeks – and four failed attempts – to get their Wanaka balloon into the sky.
“I originally wanted to spend a whole week doing this but we had to make it just two days, so we've had to pack a lot in,” Julia said.
“It’s so great to see how much these kids have achieved in such a short space of time – especially with all the hurdles!”
Thanks to Tom Etuata at Museums Wellington for the inflating and launching photos.
See a map showing the balloon’s flight path (zoom out for a wider view of the map, click on Rocket (red label) then ‘Path’).
You can find out about other projects funded through the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund here.