Story and Photo by Taylor Nichols
Whatcom Community College’s recently formed Engineering Club had a money motion approved by student council in mid-February, and have already started working on the project that it is funding. They are launching a helium-filled weather balloon into the stratosphere with a video camera attached, and plan to videotape the uppermost edges of the atmosphere at an altitude of 100,000 feet, or about 19 miles.
“We’re really excited to have the opportunity to do this,” Jackson Pennell, the president of the club said.
Pennell said that they plan to launch the balloon in mid-May, when the weather is good.
This project, which the club is calling the Whatcom Community College Engineering Club Stratoballoon, has been done by people around the world, but Pennell said they haven’t heard of it being done at Whatcom or by Whatcom students before.
They plan to launch the balloon, with a GoPro video camera and parachute attached, from a club member’s property in Skagit Valley. Anton McIntosh, the vice-president of the club, said this is because there are fewer mountains towards the East.
McIntosh defined engineers as “scientists that focus less on theory and more on practicality,” and Pennell said that he would add “analytical problem solvers” to this definition.
“Every type of engineer is looking to make the world a better place,” Pennell said. “Or a more fun place,” McIntosh added.
The club chose this project because it is not extensively time-consuming and it is cost effective, Pennell said.
The balloon is predicted to reach 100,000 feet, which is where McIntosh said the atmosphere borders space.
“You’ve already left 99.9 percent of the atmosphere, it’s very cold and very dark,” Pennell said, adding that the temperature -70 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air pressure is significantly lower than at sea level.
“If you brought a glass of water up to that altitude, it would immediately boil even though it would be really cold,” Pennell said, because of the drastic change in air pressure.
The balloon will pop when it reaches a high enough altitude because as the air pressure decreases, there will be less force keeping the helium from expanding and eventually the balloon will expand to a bursting point, Pennell said.
The balloon will be approximately six feet in diameter when they launch it, and will burst when it reaches about 20 feet in diameter. The capsule containing the video camera will drop, attached to a parachute, and the club members will then retrieve it. Pennell said that the ascent should take about two and a half hours, and 30 minutes to fall back to earth.
Retrieving the footage may be an issue with this project, McIntosh said. They will attach a GPS tracker, like the ones used by back country skiiers and mountain climbers, to the capsule so they can track where it lands.
Pennell said the GPS tracker will send text messages every ten minutes to one of their cell phones alerting them of it’s location.
They plan on following it on it’s descent, but “who knows if we’ll be able to find it again,” McIntosh said, especially if it lands on or near a mountain.
The project is unique “because it will give Whatcom students the ability to start with a goal and follow it through all the way to completion,” Pennell said.
When they started the club last quarter, Pennell said they asked students interested in joining to see what they would want the club to look like. Most said they wanted to work on projects rather than hold round-table discussions and wanted some sort of goal to work towards, which this project provides.
Most of the club members “wanted to get their hands dirty… to close the textbook and kind of pick up the wrench,” Pennell said.
Pennell, McIntosh and the club’s secretary Matt Hazenberg agreed that they hope this project will gain the club some exposure. None of them will be attending Whatcom next year, and McIntosh said that he “just hopes it exists at all next year.”
Two high-school students in Toronto did a similar project and attached a Lego figure holding a miniature Canadian flag to the camera. The footage shows the figurine flying around in space and falling back to the ground, and the Engineering Club plans on doing something similar with a Whatcom Community College Engineering Club logo or flag.
The estimated cost of the project is $670, which the club has been granted from student council.
Pennell said they reduced the cost of the project by making many of the parts themselves, like a carbon monoxide detector modified by one of the club members to aid them in finding the capsule and a fiberglass cone another member made to house and protect the video camera.
“It’d be boring to buy all the pieces,” McIntosh said.