Inflated hopes

Teachers Jarred Williamson and Dianna Hardy fill the latex weather balloon with helium before liftoff as fourth grader Miles Williamson holds onto it. Fourth and sixth grade students from Ranbune Elementary School released a weather balloon, carrying a camera, computer and GPS system, for part of a technology fair project.

Elementary and high school students shuffled into the stands of Ranburne’s football field Friday morning and cheered as a large white latex balloon lifted off toward space.

“That was awesome,” Mollie Tucker, a fourth-grader, said cupping her hands around her eyes to watch as the balloon was carried away.

For a group of fourth- and sixth-grade students from Ranburne Elementary, Friday was the culmination of several months of preparation. The balloon carried a payload of a small camera, a small computer and a GPS tracking system that will provide information for two technology fair projects, Dianna Hardy, the students’ teacher, said.

Hardy oversees the gifted program at the elementary school.

“I was watching Good Morning America and saw two sisters talking about launching a weather balloon,” Hardy said. “After watching that I thought my students could do that, too.”

Weather balloons are used daily by the National Weather Service to collect data much like the students were doing on Friday. Nathan Owen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Calera, said his office, along with 91 others in the country, sends up weather balloons at least twice a day.

“We collect temperatures, humidity, pressure, wind speed and wind direction with them,” he said. “During significant weather events we might send one up during mid-afternoon and during a hurricane we’ll send four up in a day.”

Owen said that information is then used to create weather models and forecasts.

The students were hoping to collect temperature, height and distance information with the balloon, Hardy said. To do that, though, students had to calculate how much helium to put in the balloon.

“If there’s not enough helium it’ll move too slowly and won’t get high enough, but if there is too much it’ll move too fast and pop early,” said Connor Johnson, a sixth-grader.

The students hoped to get the balloon 100,000 feet into the air — nearly 19 miles— high enough to get photographs of the Earth’s curvature, Johnson said.

“We watched videos of what the balloon looks like when it pops,” said Reesie Williamson, a fourth-grader. “It looked like a jellyfish but with a lot more tentacles.”

Miles Williamson programmed the camera to take photos every three seconds of the balloon’s hour-and-a-half flight. The students expected it would take the balloon only a third of that time to fall to Earth when it popped.

“If our calculations are correct, it’ll land about two and a half hours away from here in Georgia,” said Sydney Weathers, a sixth-grader.

Efforts to reach Hardy to learn the balloon’s fate were unsuccessful Friday afternoon.

At the release, Hardy said the students have learned a lot for the project that they’ll use for their Technology Fair presentations next month at Jacksonville State University.

“Everything is in metrics so they’re having to convert to the English system,” she said. “They’re also learning longitude and latitude to track the balloon’s location, and military time. It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun.”

While the students involved in the project were on the field for the launch, the remaining students had a good view from the stadium stands.

“It was a little nerve-wracking to know everyone was watching us,” Isabella Pollard, a sixth-grader, said “But it was also exciting to know they were watching us and our intelligence at work.”

Hardy said she was thankful the other students were allowed to come watch.

“It was a great moment to see them be so supportive and equally excited as my students,” she said. “I think we’re the first school around here to do something like this. So It’s exciting for everyone.”

Staff Writer Kirsten Fiscus: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @KFiscus_Star.