Monday, January 31, 2011

Launch Your Own High-Altitude Experiment

Are you in high school? Ever wanted to launch something on a weather balloon? (Little brothers are not acceptable payloads...) Then lucky you! NASA is hosting it's second annual Balloonsat High Altitude Flight contest.

The space agency is inviting students in the 9th through 12th grades to create experiments to be tested at high altitudes on the verge of space -- up to 100,000 feet.

Experiments can test anything, like a cell phone's range to plant growth in the stratosphere.

I asked around the office to get some ideas of what people might like to see tested in one of these experiments:

My favorite idea: Put a roll of ultra-sensitive film (like ISO 1600, 3200 or 6400) in a light-proof container and send it up in the balloon. See if the film will capture gamma rays (and possibly X-Rays) hitting it. Since cosmic gamma rays are blocked by Earth's atmosphere, they're not as often seen at Earth's surface. At altitude, however, there should be enough to be captured on the roll of film as little points of light.

Q. What would happen to a travel-sized aerosol can of hair spray? How high can it go before it explodes? (Something tells me NASA wouldn't go for this. But I think it would be awesome!) This could be important since not all cargo holds on airplanes are pressurized and a can of hairspray in a suitcase could explode.

Q. How high do you have to go before the vacuum causes water to boil? What if the whole world had the same air pressure as that altitude? Our lakes and rivers would be boiling all the time, except they'd still be cool enough to swim in!

Q. Could you chill a can of soda from room temperature by sending it up in a weather balloon, or would the can explode?

Q. If you dropped a model helicopter from the balloon at high altitude, would it glide? How far could it glide horizontally?

Experiment proposals are due by Feb. 11, so get cracking. NASA will pick the top four proposals and give those teams $1,000 each to develop their experiment. Then, they'll fly the team members down to the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio for three days in May. The teams will get to tour the center and watch their experiments be carried aloft by weather balloons.

Four more teams will receive $1,000 to develop their ideas. Those teams will then get to watch over the Internet as engineers at NASA launch their payloads for them.

The NASA announcement says that the competition is to help attract and keep students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, fields it says are "critical to the agency's future programs and missions."

I, personally, just think it would be cool to launch something in my own weather balloon!

Click here for more about how to submit a proposal:


  1. Hi there!
    My name is Kaci Heins and my 6th grade students have two high altitude balloon launches in April. We have a camera, temperature, and pressure sensor, but I love the film idea you posted above! We would like to try it but I'm curious how you used it. Our payloads are encased in aluminum tape so would that affect whether the radiation can penetrate through or not? How do we tell if the film was exposed to the radiation (what do we look for?) We are working with Project Aether who will be launching balloons in Alaska as well and we are going to be comparing the data. Any help with the film would be greatly appreciated!

  2. Hidy ho! keep up the great work!

  3. Hidy ho! i was doing the hairspray experiment with the high altitude balloon and was wondering how far up a can of hairspray can withstand?

  4. Hidy Ho! i've been wondering the same thing and it took a lot of research but it can withstand for a long time, silly goose!