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Our Wisconsin charter school uses scientific research and project-based learning as the focus of our curriculum. Project learning is based on a constructivist model of learning that engages you in real-world scholarly activity because you get to chose topics that interest you.
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How Can We Launch a Probe into Low Orbit?

Posted on December 16, 2014 by Bret H. 10th grade

At Wildlands, the students have opportunities to perform projects that wouldn't even be considered at a normal school. This year a group of six students had the bold idea of sending a weather balloon into low orbit with cameras and other monitoring probes attached. After fundraising for about a month, our group finally raised enough money to buy the equipment.

To run our module we are using a Raspberry Pi, which is a credit card sized computer, to control our camera and probes. The other equipment we are using includes a camera, GPS, altitude, temperature, and barometric pressure sensor.

Equipment like this is quite expensive, and the total cost to start our project was around five hundred dollars. We set up a fundraiser page on the internet and then we asked our parents and grandparents to donate money.  In addition to that, we got a sponsorship from Airgas for about $150 dollars worth of helium.

To program the Raspberry Pi, we had a lot to do.  First, we started by downloading a Raspberry Pi image.  Once we had the image we could begin programming our parts.  We started with our camera.  For the camera programming we had to first install the camera into the Raspberry Pi.  Once it was installed we began writing a simple command to take a single picture.  However for our actual launch we need it to take a picture every 15 seconds. So we wrote a command that does exactly that.  Next, we decided we should hook up the other sensors, but once we found directions and made our plan of how to do it, we found out we were missing the required parts for connecting them to the Raspberry Pi.  We ordered the parts and are currently still waiting for the parts to come.  

While we were starting this project, we encountered several complications.  The biggest problem we came across was the possibility of needing a license.  After several hours of research we found out that we could launch our balloon without a license if the cargo was less than twelve pounds.  After we did a little more research we concluded that our cargo would be light enough.  The next problems we faced were the size of the balloon, the amount of helium,  and how it would hold twelve pounds. After examining several different charts and sources, we found that we would need a 20 foot balloon and about 120 cubic feet of helium.  Lastly, how we were going to get our supplies?  Originally, we were going to get all of the equipment off of a website called Stratostar. Unfortunately, they never responded to our message, so we needed to find a different outlet.  In the end, we ordered our materials from several different places.

The way our system will work is quite simple. We are going to attach all of the probes to our Raspberry Pi to record data. Using the Raspberry Pi we will take a picture every couple of seconds and record altitude, temperature, and barometric pressure data the whole time the balloon is in the air.  To launch our probe, we will put our Raspberry Pi into a polystyrene box and attach it to the weather balloon and parachute.  Then we will fill the balloon with helium and once the proper amount of helium is in the balloon, it will float up to the edge of space, collecting data periodically.  Once it is around 25 miles up, the balloon will pop because helium expands at higher altitudes.  Then the probe will fall back down gently with assistance from the parachute.  Once it is back down on earth we will locate it with the help of the GPS unit.  Then we will compile all of the data we collected and present our results.

If the first launch is successful we would like to raise more funds, extending our project to conduct a launch during three different seasons and compare our results.

Thanks to everyone who donated to make our project happen!




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In the winter of 2011, Wildlands Charter School students began producing news stories for our website and an electronic email newsletter.

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