Three Rivers HomeLink students launch high-flying science project

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 2, 2014 

— The handful of students from Three Rivers HomeLink were careful as they carried the jumble of boxes and cables to the outdoor basketball court at Hermiston Junior Academy.

"Remember, NASA does it this way," said consultant Paul Verhage, as he led the students.

They worked quickly but gingerly as they prepared for launch, setting sensors and cameras inside the boxes, which resembled hastily wrapped Christmas presents.

Ten minutes later, a large white balloon flew upward, the boxes dangling below it.

Students rushed to their chase vehicles so they could track their near-space satellite before it eventually returned to Earth.

"I just hope I get to see it," said sophomore Mark Barkley, 16. "If it's clear, you can actually see (the balloon) pop."

The launch was the result of several months of work by students in a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) projects class at HomeLink, a Richland-based program that serves homeschool and other students.

It might not be cutting-edge science, said teacher Carolyn Sturges, but it is what scientists do and that's what matters.

"It's so engaging," she said. "You learn the math. You learn the science."

Sturges was inspired to have her students at the alternative program build the satellite after hearing about other schools doing similar projects.

She and her class worked with some Bellevue schools and with Verhage, who provides robotics and STEM education kits through his business based in Boise.

A near-space satellite is a straightforward endeavor -- a variety of sensors are attached to a weather balloon that carries them as high as 20 miles. At that altitude, the lack of atmospheric pressure pops the balloon and the cargo falls, cushioned by a parachute.

The satellite components -- sensors, cameras, transceivers for tracking -- aren't complicated technology, Sturges said.

But students still had to put it all together, from soldering electronics to building the boxes and covering them with a metallic fabric that would hopefully protect the equipment.

"We had to learn how to program everything," said junior Alex Riley, 17.

"And make sure all our devices worked," said freshman Jared Gaither, 15.

The project also provided lessons in adapting. The location of the launch kept changing in the days leading up to it, as students tracked and tried to predict wind and weather patterns.

Just before Friday's launch, and with the balloon ready, the wind picked up, making the students and teachers scramble. One of the switches for a sensor broke, meaning the battery for that component would have to be installed just moments before launch.

But those last-minute problems didn't dampen the students' enthusiasm.

"It's learning the processes, how it was originally done," said eighth-grader Porter Withers, 14.

Students eventually recovered the satellite about midday after using ham radio and radio telemetry to follow it to just north of Athena, Ore., about 40 miles east of Hermiston, having reached an altitude of more than 17 miles.

It will take the students some time to analyze all the temperature, humidity and radiation data the satellite collected, Verhage said. Much of that data will be the same as countless similar experiments have gathered, such as the fact that temperatures drop the higher the altitude but then rise as you leave the atmosphere. But that's the point, he said.

"Some of this they could just read about in a book," Verhage said. "When a student does this themselves and analyzes the data, they learn it a lot better."

Such projects do something more, Sturges said. They grab a student's attention. She could see it in their excitement as they tracked the satellite as it fell.

And she suspects they'll also feel a rush when they see all the photos.

"They look like you're an astronaut looking back at Earth," she said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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