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Middle School Students to Launch Near-Space Balloon

03/08/2011

A group of students from Olde Towne Middle School (OTMS) in Ridgeland, Mississippi is preparing for a trip to space -- or as close as they can get. The OTMS Radio and Technology Club, along with the school’s Science Team, are planning a near-space balloon launch at 9 AM (CDT) on March 26 (the date and time are subject to change depending on weather). The balloon -- nicknamed Titans in Space -- will use the call sign KC5NXD and is expected to reach an altitude of 94,825 feet.

The project is led by Bill Richardson, N5VEI, a past participant in the ARRL Teachers Institute on Wireless Technology, a professional development program that is part of ARRL’s donor-funded Education & Technology Program. The school has also received several grants of Amateur Radio station equipment from this program. Richardson is the sponsor of the school’s Radio and Technology Club.

The balloon will be equipped with instruments to track its exact location and a camera that will take snapshots every 15 seconds. The students will stay on the ground and analyze the data as it is transmitted back to them from the balloon. “As far as I can research, we are the first elementary, middle or high school to launch a near-space balloon in our state,” Richardson told the ARRL. The balloon will launch from the Madison County Career and Technology Center in Gluckstadt. Preflight will begin at 90 minutes before the scheduled launch. The preflight and launch will be stream-cast live on the Internet. You can also follow along on Twitter.

“Our students are busy with assembly and payload testing right now, preparing for launch day,” said OTMS Principal Allen Lawrence. “This is really a great science experiment and they are all excited.”

Richardson is encouraging radio amateurs to follow the balloon via APRS on 144.39 MHz, on aprs.fi with the call sign kc5nxd-11 and via a 2 meter voice beacon on 146.565 MHz. A 20 meter beacon at 14.079-14.080.5 MHz will offer telemetry in four modes: Domino-ex16, CW, RTTY and Hellschreiber. See the link below for detailed telemetry information.

According to Richardson, the group will be using a special balloon-modified version of FLdigi, called dl-FLdigi. Ground stations receive the balloon’s telemetry via the program’s soundcard decoding software (available as a free download). “In essence, you are creating your own HF or VHF APRS-style network on the fly,” he explained. “When a valid frame is received by a ground station, it is then sent via dl-FLdigi to a server that then plots the position onto a website dedicated to high altitude ballooning.”

Richardson said that the students need help to grab data packets or use the FLdigi to relay to packets to the network: “With the new telemetry system, we will have a better data set for a final landing spot, as well as research data.”

The launch is in partnership with the Mississippi State University's Bagley College of Engineering's aeronautical engineering program, which has provided support and supplies to the students’ efforts. The project has already received national attention from The Sally Ride Foundation, named after the first American woman to fly in space. The foundation -- dedicated to supporting girls’ and boys’ interests in science, math and technology -- sent the students a letter of support and congratulations in advance of the launch. All funding for the project has come from donations and fundraisers. The project has received support from the local community, including the Jackson (Mississippi) Amateur Radio Club.



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