•  Edge Of Space Science's high altitude hydrogen balloon ready for EOSS-187 launch with Colorado Space Grant's Student Hands On Training balloon satellites.

Balloon soars 20 miles over Hutchinson

Friday, June 25, 1999

A research balloon launched Sunday from the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center soared 20.6 miles high -- nearly to the fringes of space.

It flew so high that an onboard camera captured the curvature of the Earth. The balloon reached an altitude of 109,800 feet, nearly six miles more than expected, before bursting and parachuting to Earth.

The research balloon was the first of its kind to be launched at the Cosmosphere. The balloon and instrument package were built by members of the Kansas Near Space Project, a group of amateur scientists based in Manhattan.

"When the balloon hit 40,000 feet, we had an amateur in Iowa that said he was able to track it," said Rob Kuhns, director of education at the Cosmosphere. "We got clearance from the FAA before we launched at 8:10 a.m. At 10:45 it hit its peak altitude before the balloon burst. It landed 10 miles west of Hutchinson at 11:45 a.m., which is really remarkable that it landed so close."

The Cosmosphere recently agreed to sponsor the Kansas Near Space Project.

Kuhns said the instruments included a video camera, two film cameras, a Geiger counter to measure radiation levels, an alkaline battery experiment and sensors to measure temperature, pressure and relative humidity.

It also carried aloft a small plastic foam glider that was set free at peak altitude to see how far it would go. It has yet to be found.

Of particular interest to scientists was an instrument the balloon carried that was designed to snag tiny bits of material from meteors and the tails of comets.

According to the group's Web site, the comet samples will be sent to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for analysis.

Kuhns said members of the Cosmosphere's Level 2 Future Astronaut Training Program watched telemetry data come in during the balloon's flight.

"We had a computerized map that showed exactly where the balloon was," he said. "You could follow it as it traveled along the streets of Hutchinson."

The balloon was filled with helium to a diameter of 8 feet before its release. At altitude, the low atmospheric pressure caused the balloon to expand to nearly 30 feet in diameter.

At 109,000 feet, the temperature plunged to minus 60 degrees and there was virtually no oxygen. True space begins at about 180,000 feet, an altitude no balloon is likely to reach.

The altitude record for a helium balloon is 128,000 feet, set earlier this year by a Colorado Near Space group. In Kansas, the record is 114,000 feet, set in January by Lloyd Verhage, who made Sunday's launch at the Cosmosphere.

However, a competing group based in Prairie Village plans to best that mark and also try to break the national record during the next Cosmosphere launch at 9 a.m. July 10.

Don Pfister, organizer of the group, said he'll launch a lightweight package of instruments, including a TV camera that will broadcast the mission live on cable channel 60, for people who have outdoor dish antennas.

"We also are working with a group of second-graders up here who have built 21 paper helicopters that have a contact number on them," Pfister said. "We want to release them at altitude as a very basic experiment to see how far they'll go. It's a way to get kids excited about science."

Pfister said the balloon also will carry a small walkie-talkie that will transmit audible temperature readings as the balloon ascends. Youngsters who have toy walkie-talkies at home might be able to hear the data coming in.

The lure of reaching true space could lead to an unusual experiment.

Kuhns said the group talked about attaching a large, solid-fuel model rocket to one of the balloons and launching it from extreme altitude.

Such a rocket, powered by the same rubbery, solid fuel used in space shuttle booster engines, might be able to streak beyond the farthest wisps of atmosphere and enter space.

"It wouldn't be powerful enough to go into orbit, but it might be able to reach the lower edge of space," Kuhns said. "We could track its progress from the ground. That would be a fun way to give our Future Astronaut students some hands-on training."

Pfister said similar amateur experiments done over the ocean on the East Coast have sent rockets more than 300,000 feet -- more than 56 miles -- into the atmosphere.

Pfister said he hoped to equip a rocket with a small radio-controlled device that would let ground crews change the angle of view on a small camera in the rocket's nose.

"The Air Force awards astronaut wings to pilots that go above 50 miles," he said. "If we can get a rocket up to 300,000 feet, that's well within that same range."