Green Bank Student Scientists Launch Massive Balloon for Airborne Experiments

Budding scientists in Green Bank, West Virginia will embark on a new mission next week. Students in Ms. Brown’s 7th grade class have planned extensively to launch a 12-foot diameter, high altitude helium balloon to conduct several scientific experiments.

Digital Camera

Like a rocket ship, the balloon carries a “payload” of equipment to record data and track its location, including a Raspberry Pi computer. Two external video cameras will capture the “balloon’s eye view,” pointing at the ground below and horizontally across the sky. The balloon may soar to heights that cross the paths of planes, so it carries a radar reflector to alert them of its presence. When the balloon reaches a specific altitude, it will burst. At this height, the cameras will record the curvature of the earth. A parachute will control the speed of the payload when it descends.

The student scientists will use the Raspberry Pi computer to measure air pressure, temperature, humidity, and GPS coordinates for the duration of the mission, along with a camera to record video. This data will show what happens during the flight, and for experiments during and after the mission. Student-designed experiments in the payload will use photo-sensitive paper, marshmallows, rubber balls, and bubble wrap.

The dramatic launch will take place on the fields outside the Green Bank Elementary and Middle School, so all students can watch. Like a NASA mission, every moment of the balloon’s rise and fall will be tracked. In these ascent and descent phases, a SPOT Tracker™ will record this data, sending the geographical coordinates via satellite every few minutes.

These student scientists peered into the future using prediction software, which considers the size and weight of the balloon, its lift, launch location, and weather to predict where the balloon should land. The weather must be just right for the mission to succeed. Strong winds could whisk the balloon into surrounding states, too far to be retrieved.

The balloon’s final location will be communicated to a chase team via ham radio, who will drive to the projected landing site to intercept the payload. After recovery, the unopened payload will be returned to the school where the students will observe first-hand the results of their experiments and videos.

Many people and organizations came together to make this project possible including 7th grade teacher Julie Brown; student Max O’Ganian; volunteer Rudy Marrujo and the 8 Rivers Amateur Radio Club; the Durbin Lions Club; the Green Bank Elementary and Middle School PTO; and the Green Bank Observatory and staff including Marty Bloss, Paul Marganian and Amanda White.


After its launch in Green Bank, the balloon and payload exceeded the 60,000-ft. ceiling of its transmitter signal near West Augusta, Virginia. The retrieval team, including Rudy Marrujo and Harry Bateman, scoured the steep mountains to locate the payload for several days using its internal GPS tracking system. The payload was finally recovered on Memorial Day weekend, and the student scientists will now access the data collected by the cameras and experiments located inside.