From the 50-yard line of Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. During the eclipse. With tens of thousands of people watching. A select few students from a science club made up of four metro-east middle schools will launch a weather balloon.
If everything goes well, the balloon will rise to 112,000 feet — 21 miles — above the earth, far past the clouds, and eventually reach the stratosphere, where the blue sky bleeds into black space and the mere curvature of the earth takes on the roundness of a ball.
The balloon will expand up to 80 feet before it pops. It will plummet back to earth and, hopefully for the students and their chaperones, tracking the payload with GPS in a school bus, land not too far from where it started. And that’s a big “if.”
“It’s gonna be fun,” said Hayleigh Bell, who goes to Emge Junior High School in Belleville.
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Hayleigh became interested in the club last year after watching a video about ballooning. She missed a previous launch so she’s looking forward to Monday’s.
“I’m interested in math and science, and I enjoy doing things that have to do with that,” Hayleigh said. “If I ever wanted to go into a career that had to do with math or science or weather, this could help a lot with that.”
The club will measure radiation levels from the sun to see whether they fall when it is blocked by the moon. And with a GoPro camera, they hope to show the reach of the moon's shadow as it stretches across the sky.
The Balloonatics, whose goal is to get students interested in science and technology, was founded as a recreation of a ballooning group called Earth-to-Sky Calculus, based in Bishop, California. In 2016, Belle Valley, Smithton, Signal Hill and Emge Junior High schools each sent an educator to Bishop to learn about the program, and later they opened clubs at their own schools.
The group focuses on 7th-graders and launches about three or four times a year. This time, though, because the first outing falls so quickly after the start of school, the veteran 8th-graders will be in charge. It will be one of their most auspicious launches, and, possibly, one of their last, closing out the first chapter of their scientific careers.
Like the three other students from Emge Junior High, Hayleigh had to write an essay to be chosen for the eclipse launch.
“It was really exciting,” she said about being chosen. “There was like a lot of people who wrote essays to do it, I know, so we were competing with a lot of people.”
For Margaret Ziegler, who also goes to Emge, her interest in ballooning ties into her love of astronomy. A couple of years ago, she said, she and her mom even won a contest to have their names engraved on small nameplates that were eventually sent to Mars.
Margaret is an old hand when it comes to ballooning. It starts with preparing the payload, she explained. First they pack the sensors into a lunch box, and then they activate heat packets to keep their instruments warm and functioning. Everything needs to be positioned just right and properly duct-taped so nothing falls off. So far, nothing has.
Most importantly, no one can touch the balloon with their bare hands. If that happens, the oils from their skin could cause the material to tear, exploding the $500 balloon far earlier than planned, so everyone wears latex gloves.
A couple hours later, the team chases down their space loot.
“We have to drive to the place, and if it’s on somebody’s property, of course, we’re going to be respectful and try to find the people and ask them,” Margaret said.
“(Once,) we had to go to Salem, and it was on a farmer’s property and we had to travel, like, so far out into the field,” she said. “I almost lost my shoe, but I got it back.”
Salem, about 20 miles east of Lake Carlyle, is conveniently located on Illinois 50, but simulations for Monday’s launch show that the payload could land in the Shawnee National Forest. The Balloonatics are packing a ladder just in case.
Back in the classroom, the students will review the data they collected. The sensors are relatively simple, measuring the height, temperature, pressure and radiation levels at different points in the atmosphere.
The most important number, however, may be how many students participate in the club.
Luckily for them, their research doesn’t depend on the eclipse, and more launches are already planned. The club’s schedule includes meeting one month and then launching the next.
Already the club is kicking around the idea of measuring the atmosphere’s changes on plants by sending their seeds into the sky. After they return, the students will plant them, but some might say they are already sprouting.