Robotics team captures images from 25 miles up

 By Kyle Moroney

The Grand Rapids Press
GRANDVILLE, Mich. (AP) — A snow-covered Earth and the morning sun rising over the Grandville horizon are among thousands of snapshots captured by a school robotics team balloon that soared to record-setting heights recently.
The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June.

“The kids are really excited about hitting a new record,” Hepfer told The Grand Rapids Press.

Four freshmen worked on the balloon capsule the night before the launch, attaching a water-tight box carrying a GPS tracker, an extra battery and two cameras. The next morning, a team of three girls filled the balloon with helium, but experimented with using less helium than in previous launches.

The end result was the balloon traveling an estimated 450 miles over 7 hours before landing outside the small western New York town of Farmersville, which sits about 55 miles southeast of Buffalo.

While in flight, one camera snapped a picture every two seconds and the other took pictures every five seconds, Hepfer said. Though the cameras’ batteries eventually sizzled after several hours, nearly 11,000 pictures were captured during the flight.

Lower-altitude pictures show Grandville’s gridded landscape, the Rivertown Crossings Mall and the group’s first set of snapshots capturing the rising sun over the horizon. Pictures of the balloon and the parachute with a snow-covered Earth in the background were captured at higher altitudes.

“We are very excited to see them — there are amazing pictures that came out of this,” Evele said.

The team watched the balloon launch at 7:30 a.m. Dec. 28 from the school’s Robotics and Engineering Center and then followed its flight with a GPS as it traveled near Lansing, into Canada and then across Lake Erie before landing in New York.

Evele and Hepfer believe the balloon traveled an average of 100 mph and likely caught a jet stream as it cruised toward the eastern seaboard. The launch also broke the team’s distance record as a balloon that landed in Iowa had held the mark.

“It’s pretty cool that our small team beat the record,” said 15-year-old Rosalee Pokora, a freshman on the RoboDawgs team. “I’m surprised it went off so quickly.”

Evele and Hepfer remain unsure why the balloon launch traveled farther and higher than their typical spring and summer launches. They suspect that the denser December air, filling the balloon with less helium at launch and the early morning launch time were contributing factors to the new records.

“The more it stretches the spring, the more lift the balloon is giving,” Evele said. “As the balloon rises in the atmosphere, the air pressure outside the balloon decreases, but the amount of helium in the balloon remains the same.

“This causes the balloon to expand. The higher the balloon goes, the bigger it gets until it finally bursts. For this balloon it happened at about 130,000 feet. So, strangely enough, the less helium you put into the balloon, the higher it can go before it bursts.”