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The Weather Balloon Chronicles: A story of a group project in my bachelors

Date:28 September 2018
Some of my group and I setting up the first launch
Some of my group and I setting up the first launch

At times during your studies you get to do something which reminds you of why you chose to study that subject in the first place. For me, one of the highlights of my studies so far has been a group project that I did at the end of my first year studying Physics. This is the story of that experiment. Enjoy!


The group project was for Physics Laboratory 2 which I had in the last semester of my first year. Three friends and I made a group and had to come up with a topic to investigate. We had a lot of freedom when choosing the experiment - there are some projects which are suggested, but if you have a good idea you can just go for it. A friend of mine even did an experiment to determine the maximum amount of coffee you can have in your cup so it doesn’t spill when you go upstairs* - definitely very important stuff (especially with an exam or deadline coming up).

Our group wanted to take this opportunity to do something that we found interesting. We settled on doing an experiment with a weather balloon (why? Basically because it seemed fun to launch a weather balloon). For those of you who do not know, a weather balloon is a balloon filled with helium so that it rises in the air. At some altitude it pops, a parachute opens, and it floats safely to the ground. We spoke to some professors who then helped us formulate our final idea - send a weather balloon up to 20,000 metres and use it to measure cosmic rays (particles which come from space). This had already been done before - by ‘slightly eccentric’ experimentalists who went up in the weather balloon themselves - we wanted to confirm theories that we had researched, and potentially use our results as a stepping stone for further research.

After deciding on the topic, the next step was to find equipment, which included a geiger counter, a pressure sensor, and a temperature sensor (I call it a temperature sensor, but basically it was just a fancy thermometer). The equipment was all connected to an Arduino  and placed in a styrofoam box which we would then launch into the stratosphere. We also got some cameras from a semi-dodgy Chinese website (the Google translated instructions were hilarious) to attach to the box so we could see what the sky looks like at 20 km high. This stuff was kind of expensive, so we contacted a few different companies to see if they could help us out. IBM Client Innovation Centre were interested in our project and wanted to help us out in exchange for a bit of promotion amongst the fellow students that we presented to. Safe to say we were very pleased with this, as it was a super nice bonus for us, and our wallets.

After spending a lot of time testing our setup (for example in a powerful fridge to see how each piece of equipment would last in cold temperatures), it was finally time for us to launch. We launched the balloon twice, the first time after driving to some tiny town in the province of Lelystad - randomly chosen, because the wind was blowing inland from there that day - and the second from Zernike campus. We checked weather predictions beforehand, because if the wind was not in our favour the balloon could fly into the North Sea, or worse: Germany. We then drove off to where the balloon was predicted to land and waited patiently for it to do so. We had a GPS attached, but it only worked below a certain altitude, so for most of the flight we were in the dark about the status of our beloved balloon. I don’t think I have ever felt more relieved than I was when we discovered the box in the middle of a field in Friesland - thankfully a box parachuting down did not give a random farmer too much of a fright. We managed to get our data (and dodgy Chinese cameras) back and could analyse the results.

One of my fellow group members made a video of the launch, including filling the balloon up with helium. I have included it here for your viewing pleasure (the number in the bottom left is altitude in metres):

From developing the idea to handing in the final report, we spent a lot of time on this project. I think I speak for all of us when I say it was the highlight of our studies to date. We even continued speaking to the professors about how we can go further with our research, for example by focusing not only on charged particles but on different types (such as thermal neutrons). Right now we are still planning to do more with weather balloon experiments - basically we just really like launching stuff into space.

This is an example of what you get to do as a science student - in some courses you get a lot of freedom to apply your knowledge and even take part in really nice experiments (in your courses and beyond) if you are motivated to put in work. Doing this project helped me feel comfortable with my decision to study Physics, as it cemented my view that I could do things in my study which I really enjoyed. Projects and courses like this motivated me for the following years of my bachelor, and will hopefully motivate me well into my masters.

* - The result of the experiment was to drink tea rather than coffee because it is the superior drink. No, just kidding. I am not exactly sure about the result, but if somebody has a burning desire to know then you can always let me know and I’ll try to find out for you… or just do the experiment yourself.


I hope you enjoyed this little story, and if you have any similar stories about your studies or other projects that you have done, I would love to hear them!

About the author

Hello, my name is Joey, and I'm a Physics student from Manchester, England. In between making (good) bad puns, making fun of my friends, and finding ingenious ways to procrastinate, I write blogs.


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