Henderson students send up weather balloon for class project

About two years ago a group of MIT students launched a weather balloon almost 18 miles into near space. The balloon carried a digital camera that took stunning aerial photos over Massachusetts. The project, Icarus, was done on a budget of $150, and the students were featured on news channels such as CNN, CBS and ABC.

Last month, three Las Vegas high school seniors did the same thing for less than $50.

Stephen Pretto, Andrew Campling and Jake Sikes launched Viking I on March 28 from Pretto’s Henderson home and recovered it April 2 from the Hualapai Indian tribe in Peach Springs, Ariz., where the craft crashed.

The balloon rose nearly 100,000 feet above the E arth, and the camera snapped more than 2,000 photos.

The photos and a time-lapse video are available at projectviking.org.

The three students are seniors at Explore Knowledge Academy, 1711 Whitney Mesa Drive, Suite 140.

Inspired by the MIT students’ project and others like it, Pretto planned the Viking project in November as an assignment in his Advanced Placement physics class. Campling and Sikes joined the project in February.

“I just wanted to create my own project with my own ideas,” Pretto said. “We’re the only high school students in Nevada to do anything like this that I know of.

“I wanted to show people that anyone can do this relatively easy and relatively cheap.”

The guys picked a launch date after weeks of calculating wind patterns. High-altitude winds, in this area, always blow toward the southeast.

The balloon was about 6 feet in diameter and held about 50 cubic feet of helium. They ordered the balloon by mail and rented a helium tank for the launch.

The camera was a Canon A470, a standard point-and-shoot model, that Pretto bought off eBay for about $20.

The camera harness was an Igloo brand soft cooler, the size of a large lunch box, with a hole drilled in the side. The team got the cooler for free from its school’s lost and found department.

Inside the cooler they also stored a GPS device, loaned to them by GPS City, 6847 S. Eastern Ave., Suite 104.

The balloon was connected to the cooler by a couple of feet of nylon rope.

When the balloon ripped at its highest point, a parachute helped guide the cooler safely to the ground. The camera still works like new and didn’t even get a scratch, they said.

The scariest moment of the three-hour launch was when the balloon floated above the GPS’ maximum range.

“We lost communication at 60,000 feet, and we were freaking out,” Campling said. “We thought it had blown up or something.”

The group is planning a second launch, Viking II, for sometime in May, when they hope the winds are agreeable.

“Our next project will be a little more impressive,” Campling said.

They plan to make a gyroscopic camera mount to keep the camera stable at all times and upgrade the camera to get better photos. They also plan to mount a video camera and an audio recorder.

For more information or to donate to the Viking II launch fund, visit projectviking.org.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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