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Jan. 26

Higher Learning

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MCC students launch high-altitude balloon into ‘near space’ during annular eclipse as part of
NASA-funded STEM learning and research project.

Visitors to Roswell, New Mexico, are typically more focused on what comes down from outer space. Recently, a group of Nebraska students traveled to the nation’s hub for alien-inspired tourism to send a weather balloon more than 81,100 feet up. Through a grant facilitated by Metropolitan Community College and funded by NASA, 10 students from MCC, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Omaha launched a high-altitude balloon while standing in the “cosmic bull’s eye” of the Oct. 14 annular eclipse. 

As participants in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, the teams will study the data collected from the payloads the balloons carried along the path of the eclipse and apply key learnings from the experiment at a follow-up launch during a total eclipse in April 2024. NEBP is primarily funded through the NASA Science Activation program. The goal of the program is to connect diverse learners of all ages to authentic science experiences that create learner pathways to STEM careers.

Nebraska students were among participants from more than 80 high schools, community colleges, tribal schools, historically Black colleges and four-year universities represented. MCC physics instructor Kendra Sibbernsen, Ph.D., led the project and was one of four faculty mentors, which included Derrick Nero, Ed.D., assistant professor of Engineering Education at UNO; Karen Stelling, a professor in the College of Engineering at UNL; and her husband Michael Sibbernsen, director of education at the Branched Oak Observatory. 

The Sibbernsens have participated in 85 educational high-altitude balloon launches since 2011. Kendra said she wanted to pursue the project at MCC because of the unique opportunity it would provide for students to participate in a national research project. 

“It’s not every day that students can be part of a successful NASA mission. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Nebraska students to contribute to such a large project and be able to share their experiences and data with teams from across the nation,” Sibbernsen said. 

Sibbernsen said it was also a good opportunity for Nebraska educational institutions to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project. Participating schools chose one of two tracks of study — atmospheric science or engineering. 

The Nebraska team was focused on the engineering aspects of the project, launching one balloon during each eclipse and floating their payloads, which include live streaming cameras to capture content. The balloon climbed to a peak altitude of 81,132 feet and traveled 138 miles from the launch site before being retrieved on public land using tracking equipment. 

Students used 3D printers to produce some of the components for the flight. The equipment had to be able to operate at altitude and withstand impact from falling to the ground tethered to a parachute. From the ground, students sent signals to a satellite that could communicate with their balloon at altitude and relay commands to an on-board receiver for in-flight operations. Commands included one to open and close an air vent in the neck of the balloon to manipulate its altitude and another to trigger an electronic process to release the payloads from the balloon. 

“High-altitude balloons are stepping stones into aerospace engineering, and doing experiments with them is much more affordable than testing rockets. And when we do projects like these with students during an eclipse, we can get some amazing pictures and build on their excitement,” Sibbernsen said. 

Sibbernsen said every balloon launch is different, each one building on the one before it. She said the Roswell launch was successful because all of its camera, tracking and venting systems were functional while in the air and they were able to live-stream video, but the cut-down process failed at high altitude after succeeding during a tethered practice launch at 80 feet. Using the venting system to lower the balloon nearly doubled the mileage from the anticipated landing distance. 

“It’s true experimental science, and we’ll add this one to our collective history,” Sibbernsen said. “I told the team how proud I was of what they had accomplished up to this point. There was a year of buildup and a lot of adrenaline for a short period of time to study the annular eclipse. We can take a little break now, then we’ll start talking about what we can do better and start preparing for the total eclipse.” 

Visit mccneb.org/AnnularEclipse for more information, photos and videos of Nebraska students participating in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project. Looking for more STEM learning opportunities at MCC? Visit mccneb.edu/NorthExpress to check out our Science on a Sphere programming .