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WATCH: High School Senior Launches Weather Balloon With GoPro to the Edge of Space

IMG_7565High school senior Jens Rataczak successfully completed his Engineering Institute Capstone Project, Journey to the Edge of Space, on Sunday, January 31. Over the course of a year, Jens brought his project from concept to completion. Read on to learn more about Jens, his Capstone Project, and the upcoming opportunities to observe presentations from all Totino-Grace Engineering Institute seniors.

According to Totino-Grace Using a high-altitude weather balloon, a high definition camera will be lifted into the high stratosphere and capture images of the curvature of the earth. Additionally, the balloon’s current location and altitude will be transmitted to a computer on the ground so that the path of the flight can be stored and tracked.

Project Details: The initial goal of the project was to launch a weather balloon as high as possible to capture visual images of the earth’s curvature. Jens indicated that during the research and development phase, he came across a number of similar projects online, but wanted to take his capstone to the next level and designed devices to include additional tracking to enhance the project results and measurements. His design was enhanced to include temperature, pressure, altitude, and acceleration tracking in addition to audio and visual recording.

IMG_7506_1A number of peers and professionals were instrumental in providing support and guidance to Jens throughout the course of the project. Chuck Thibault, who attended Totino-Grace from 2012-2015, has been an ongoing contributor to the capstone project. He providing inspiration for the initial concept, participated in the preliminary research and design, and was present for the launch and tracking of the balloon.

Jens was able to work with Christopher Gosch ’12 and the University of Minnesota to utilize their APRS Tracking System which he then tweaked to meet the needs of his project. In addition to the use of the tracking system, Jens created a data logger system using an arduino, SD card and GPS chip that he attached to the weather balloon payload.

Throughout the planning, preparation, and development phases, Jens consulted with Totino-Grace Engineering Institute directors and faculty members as well as his mentor, Paul Ham. Each E3 student is paired with a professional in the engineering field for the three years of the program who shares their experience, knowledge and perspective on engineering. Click HERE to learn more about the mentor component of the program.

Although the launch started with some challenges (the balloon needed additional helium after it was sealed) the project was a great success. Jens shared the following notes about the experience: “The goal was to get the balloon to 100,000 feet but the final altitude reached was 107,363 feet, over 20 miles, before the balloon burst. I was able to track it for four hours, obtaining updates every few minutes. The balloon veered off the projected course before returning to the estimated path. The location of the drop was in a cornfield in Glenwood, Wisconsin. We had a fun encounter with the property owner who was really interested in hearing about the project when we arrived to collect it from her cornfield. It was exciting to watch the GoPro footage and identify visual locations such as Lake Mille Lacs and the Mississippi River. Another interesting finding was the size of the balloon throughout the flight. It starting at a diameter of about 8 feet, and expanded to about 40 feet prior to bursting due to the decrease in atmospheric pressure. At peak altitude the tracking system went dark for about 45 minutes due to post burst violence (turbulence while plummeting back to the earth’s surface).”

As a member of the first E3 Engineering Institute cohort, Jens and his classmates have been exposed to outstanding opportunities. Jens reflects, “It’s been a huge eye opener, showing me what engineering is all about and what engineers do. Engineers are involved in solving every day matters like how to improve a coffee brewing device to global issues like addressing water pollution. This program has expanded my horizons and helped me pursue my academic and personal interests in ways I never thought possible.”

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