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Balloons with APRS Payloads to Race Across North America in Educational Challenge


It all began when Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) educator Joanne Michael, KM6BWB — a science coach at the Wiseburn Unified School District in Los Angeles — challenged another ARISS partner group to a mid-altitude, cross-continent balloon race. Michael has led her students in several balloon launch attempts from the Los Angeles area each year.

Given the disruption caused to schools by the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael wanted to shake things up a bit and give students worldwide a unique distance-learning treat that could safely be accomplished during the pandemic. She challenged Ted Tagami, KK6UUQ, from ARISS partner to a mid-altitude cross-continent balloon race, and Tagami accepted the challenge. Tagami plans to launch his balloon from Oakland, California. ARISS partner ISS Above inventor Liam Kennedy, KN6EQU, of Pasadena, California, got wind of the idea and asked to participate too.

ARISS,, and ISS Above are ISS National Lab Space Station Explorer (SSE) partners that work to inspire, engage, and educate students in science technology engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) topics and to pursue careers in those fields.

The story caught fire on social media, inspiring one teacher to figure out how to initiate a launch from her school. “Let’s get planning and get your thoughts and ideas and let’s make this happen for the students,” she said in a post.

Once the balloons are airborne, students can track each balloon’s location, altitude, and temperature, which are fed automatically via the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS).

“Educators and parents around the globe can excite at-home youth with this initiative,” ARISS said in announcing the challenge. “Students can tally and track the states each balloon travels through and plot altitude versus temperature [and other parameters). Also, by researching weather patterns, students can make assumptions from their own data. This could include speed variations due to weather. They also can predict each balloon’s flight path and when they might cross the finish line.”

For more information on the balloon launch, lesson plans, and the livestream video link visit the ARISS Mid-Altitude Balloon Race page. 



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