Report: experiments from 300 Irish primary school students form part of the Spaceship Earth project launching this week from Valentia, Co Kerry

By Cornelia Connolly, Derek O'Keeffe, NUI Galway; Patrick Johnson, Mary Fitzpatrick and Kevin Johnson, University of Limerick

In space nobody can hear you scream: this famous Hollywood film tagline is based on the fact that sound does not travel in a vacuum. Due to the increased threat of radiation damage and the extreme changes in temperature, space is one of the harshest environments imaginable and it consequently lends itself to novel scientific enquiry and experiments.

But getting to space is expensive so edge-of-space or high-altitude balloons are often employed to carry a payload above 30 km (100,000 feet) to explore the unique conditions of the upper atmosphere. There are significant stress loads experienced In typical space mission launches, such as vibrations, g-force, extreme temperatures, significant radiation exposure and the vacuum environment of space.

Up, up and away: high-altitude balloons

Considering all these barriers to engaging in space-related research, high-altitude balloon flights provide affordable access to a near-space environment for scientific experiments. The use of high-altitude balloons for scientific experimentation is not a new thing. Almost 40 years ago in 1982, NASA took over the National Scientific Balloon Facility and they have launched more than 1700 balloons for 35 universities, 23 other research agencies, and 33 foreign groups. The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility launches about 10 to 15 balloons per year, sending scientific payloads to the edge of space for a fraction of the cost of a satellite launch.

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From NASA Wallops, the story of NASA's scientific balloons, "the best kept secrets of space science"

Their largest balloon, the Ultra Long Duration Balloon, which costs upwards of $2 million dollars to deploy, can carry payloads of up to 3,600 kg (approximately the weight of two SUVs) and can achieve flights of up to 100 days in duration. When fully inflated in the stratosphere, the pumpkin-shaped balloon measures 115 metres in diameter and 70 metres in height. To put this into context, the dimensions of the fully inflated balloon would be larger than the playing area of most soccer pitches across Europe.

High-altitude balloons are typically filled with helium, the same gas that is used to fill party balloons, and float very high up into the stratosphere. The stratosphere is the second layer of the Earth's atmosphere and typically begins at around 10 km above ground level and ends around 50 km above ground level. As mentioned already, there are many purposes for high-altitude balloons, but their most common usage is as weather balloons.

Getting your weather foecast from balloons

Meteorological services all around the globe, including Met Eireann, launch daily weather balloons to collect data such as atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and GPS location (used to determine wind speed and altitude) from the upper atmosphere. This data is recorded by a device called a Radiosonde ('Radio' because it uses a UHF radio transmitter to send the data back to the ground stations and 'Sonde’ from the French word for probe).

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From RTÉ Archives, Seamus McConville reports for Newsbeat in 1965 on how balloons are used to forecast the weather

The weather balloons, which start out measuring about 1.8 metres (6 feet) in diameter before release, will travel approximately 30 km vertically into the stratosphere and, depending on the size of the balloon and the weight of the payload, will take approximately one to one and a half hours to reach their maximum height. Here, the balloon will have expanded due to the reduced air pressure to be about 7 or 8 metres (23 to 26 feet) in diameter, close to the size of a supermarket delivery truck.

At this point, the weather balloons will burst due to low air pressure and a parachute will be deployed which allows the payload to glide safely back to Earth. In total, the balloon payload will travel anywhere from 50 km to 150 km between take-off and landing and it will take around two and a half to three hours for the payload to return back down to Earth. Once the payload has landed, GPS trackers attached to the payload are used to find its location for collection.

How Spaceship Earth is taking the classroom into space

Spaceship Earth involves launching approximately 60 experiments to the edge-of-space using high-altitude balloons. The experiments are from 300 Irish primary students attending schools in Galway, Limerick and Kerry. It is expected that these balloons will reach approximately 30 km (100,000 feet) and will expose the payload experiments to the extreme environment of near-space. The payload is instrumented with electronics such as GPS, data loggers and tracking technology to accurately find its return location.

Pupils from Scoil Mhure, Oranmore, Co Galway who are taking part in the Spaceship Earth project with school principal Edel Carney and science teacher Regina Morahan. Photo supplied by authors

The most popular experiments include the sunflower seed test, where students can compare the growth of sunflower seeds exposed to near-space conditions with control seeds at ground level. The primary school children also want to send experiments to test the effect of low pressure on objects. Low pressure in space causes some objects to expand and some students are exploring this phenomenon with marshmallows – which should get bigger after being exposed to the reduced pressure in space.

Some of the class groups want to send experiments testing elasticity and have selected to examine how the elasticity of a rubber band will change after exposure to extreme temperature and radiation. A final suggestion, and perhaps a timely one, is to send hand sanitizer to the edge of space. The students want to test if the hand sanitizer will still be effective at killing germs after being exposed to the harsh environment of near-space.

Once the experiments return, students will engage in analysis and discussion about their experiments that will extend and deepen their learning and will be supported to showcase their work at local and national science fairs.

Spaceship Earth launches July 2nd at Valentia Observatory in Co. Kerry. It is a SFI Discover-funded study by NUI Galway (Lero HIVE Lab) and the University of Limerick, in collaboration with Met Eireann.

Dr Cornelia Connolly is a Lecturer and Researcher at the School of Education at NUI Galway. She is also a member of Lero, the SFI Centre for Software Research. Dr Patrick Johnson is a Lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Limerick. Mary Fitzpatrick is a Biomedical Engineering student at the University of Limerick. Dr. Kevin Johnson is Senior AV Technician within the Department of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Limerick. Prof. Derek O'Keeffe is a Consultant Physician at University Hospital Galway and Professor of Medical Device Technology at NUI Galway. He is also a member of Lero


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ