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Balloon Launch Takes Hamilton to New Heights


Not long before noon on Sunday, a balloon was launched from a field in the center of campus. Its destination? The edge of outer space.

Dozens of students, members of the Society of Physics for Students, gathered around the Dunham Green with a large banner reading “One Giant Leap for Hamkind.” After months of hard work, their high altitude weather balloon, along with camera equipment to record the flight into the stratosphere, a GPS, and a parachute to bring it all back down to Earth, was finally ready.

Every part of the project had been tested and retested. The balloon was filled with helium. The GPS was activated and hand warmers placed around the GoPro to keep it functional in the freezing temperatures above. The package was duct taped shut and fastened with zip ties. And most importantly—the parachute was tied to the package to guide it safely back to the ground at the end of its journey.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” they chanted, and the balloon began to rise. Then, everything went quiet as the balloon shrunk to a small dot in the sky before vanishing into the clouds.

The launch only took a matter of minutes, but for the co-founders of the Hamilton Society of Physics Students,  a chapter of the National Society for Physics Students, it took a year and a half to get the balloon off the ground.

R.J. Taylor ‘19 and Bryan Edwards ‘19 have been working toward launching a helium balloon into space for three semesters. As physics majors, they’re always looking for a way to expand the limits of scientific exploration on campus and allow students to take on a new challenge.

“This is something that Hamilton has never done before,” said Edwards. “We [Hamilton] have a long history of interest in space—from the building of the Litchfield Observatory to the physics major, which is one of the oldest departments on campus. Ever since then, the College has been looking towards space and looking towards the stars to learn more.”

“It’s been a really good learning opportunity for students,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of testing that went into this ahead of time. It’s great to get hands-on experience actually doing the science and learning the physics behind it all.” Assistant Professor of Physics Kristen Burson advised the group throughout this process.

Taylor and Edwards’ team had no easy task ahead of them. The balloon and its package had to be prepared to ascend into the stratosphere, weathering temperatures below 100 degrees and winds over 100 miles per hour.

As it rose higher and higher, the air pressure caused the balloon to pop at approximately 80,000 feet above Earth, at which point the package descended until the parachute took over. At its peak, the GoPro mounted to the package captured an image of the Earth’s curvature. 

The team had initially planned to collect the package only a few hours after launch, but the balloon traveled much farther than they had planned.

“Due to the weather conditions, our balloon ended up landing in the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire within a couple hundred feet of a road,” said Thomas Marsh ‘20, a member of the club and part of the retrieval team. “Given the distance, our plan is to recover the balloon this upcoming weekend.”

For the future of the club, Taylor and Edwards are looking to the stars—and beyond. “This launch will hopefully pave the way for many future launches,” Edwards said. “We’d like to do launches that are even higher than this—maybe even 100,000 feet.”

A story about the launch can be viewed on WKTV, the Mohawk Valley’s NBC and CBS affiliate here

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