Bear balloon group soars 19 miles into atmosphere

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Calvin 2 balloon sails 19 miles above the atmosphere.

Calvin 2 balloon sails 19 miles above the atmosphere.

It was a cold January morning when a group of Bears went where no Bears had been before, making affordable access to the high atmosphere for Mercer research a possibility.

James McNichols, Spencer Penley and Natasha Finnegan, a group of juniors in Mercer’s engineering program, built and successfully launched a high-altitude balloon that rose 19 miles in the Earth’s atmosphere. During the Jan. 31 trial, the balloon travelled for around 3 and a-half hours and 120 miles.

While projects like this are nothing new, most of them are done with very expensive or very cheap parts, according to the group.

“NASA flies one of these like every year. It weighs like three tons,” said McNichols. “Others program a cellphone to text its location, throw a GO-PRO on it and hope they get it back. We were trying to run the middle. We wanted to do serious research, but in an affordable way. ”

The group’s balloon, named Calvin 2, was built with off-the-shelf items that cost the group about $300, including the balloon and the hydrogen.

Calvin 2 spawned from a high school project that McNichols completed as a senior. McNichols took the foundation with him to Mercer and brought Penley on board for their yearly honors project. Finnegan, who was asked to join the group for the senior design portion, was sought out for her electrical knowledge.

Calvin 2 contained sensors which checked temperature and altitude, as well as HAM radios that fed the group information during the flight.

The group started by crafting a wooden model to get a feel for the design. The final parts were then 3D printed and assembled.

“The modeling [took] 12 hours,” said Penley. “The assembly and testing took about 12 hours as well.”

A simple, braided nylon string attached the box and the balloon. The string needed to be strong enough to connect the two, but weak enough to be cut if an airplane clipped the balloon.

“We didn’t want the plane carrying [Calvin 2] 5000 miles away [from its intend course],” McNichols said.

After communicating with MERPO and the Federal Aviation Administration to get clearance, the group released Calvin 2 and began to follow it by car.

The balloon was originally predicted to land near Dublin, Georgia according to the group’s projections. But, a few mistakes, including not putting enough hydrogen in the balloon, changed Calvin 2’s course.

The GPS inside the machine stopped working once the balloon approached 32,000 feet. With quick thinking and math skills, the group was able to follow the balloon’s path without the GPS.

“It was a small miracle we got this back,” McNichols said. “You let go of this thing and it flies off into God knows where…you have no control.”

Calvin 2 travelled for three hours and fell down around Pembroke, Georgia. The balloon expanded until it busted. Calvin 2 plummeted back towards the earth in free fall. Once it reached the lower atmosphere, the parachute opened and slowed Calvin 2’s speed to around 10 to 15 miles per hour.

The group plans to build a stronger balloon for future work. The group will receive up to $4,000  to build a balloon with better quality materials for their senior design project. The money will come from a grant secured by Mercer professor Anthony Choi.

“We were excited to be able to secure that kind of funding,” McNichols said.

The group hopes to use momentum from their success to branch out. Matt Marone, a Mercer Physics professor, has approached the group with a project idea aimed at collecting meteorites. McNichols also mentioned that the Biology department could use the balloon to collect high altitude samples. The group also hopes to do outreach with local schools in Macon-Bibb County.

For these bears, the sky is not the limit.