- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

BILLERICA, Mass. (AP) - Something that was in outer space now calls Billerica Memorial High School home.

A balloon, along with a GPS tracking device and a GoPro camera, briefly toured outer space on June 5, rising almost 90,000 feet before the balloon popped. Billerica Memorial High School seniors in Engineering Design, who had graduated a few days earlier, were thrilled to meet their altitude goal.

“They were so excited about it, and ending with them on that note was perfect,” said Christine Tewksbury, who taught the science course with Matthew Flood. “It was the most exciting, most fun day I’ve had in my 10 years of teaching.”

Flood knows a Windham, N.H., high school teacher who has conducted these balloon experiments, and decided to incorporate the project into Billerica’s course. The teachers received a $1,600 Billerica Partners for Education grant, which covered everything: the helium, balloon, parachute, GPS, GoPro and more.

The 26 engineering students were the “driving force behind the class project,” Flood said. They broke into groups, researched the experiment and designed the successful apparatus.

They connected the balloon to a box with the GPS, which sent them the balloon’s position and altitude every two minutes. The GoPro took photos every 10 seconds.

A microcomputer measured air temperature, pressure, humidity and light- data they could download in a spreadsheet.

They also included a buzzer to find the contraption when it landed.

Instead of releasing the balloon in Billerica, which would get tricky descending over Boston and near airplanes at Logan Airport, the students traveled up to New Hampshire’s Keene High School away from traffic on June 5. The 6-foot diameter balloon rose for more than 2 hours, expanding to 28 feet when it popped at 88,688 feet, according to the GPS calculation; the edge of outer space is 65,000 feet.

The balloon reached this maximum height over Goffstown. Outer space temperature: -57 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It started lifting at 20 to 30 miles per hour, but it really started to slow down when it got way up there,” Tewksbury said. “Even enough time for us to get lunch before we had to go find it.”

Once the balloon popped, it came rocketing down, with a maximum speed of 69 mph; it even dropped 50,000 feet in 4 minutes.

They were concerned it would land on Interstate 93 in Manchester, N.H., instead of a suburban area.

“We wanted some breathing room in the country, but it was dropping so rapidly,” Flood said. “Luckily, the parachute eventually did catch, and it began to slow down. Thankfully, it ended up in the dead end of a community.”

The GPS told them to head to Hooksett, N.H., a bit north of Manchester. When they arrived about 16 minutes later, the GPS was spot on; the balloon was in the woods at the edge of a neighborhood, which was the perfect location, they said.

“As soon as we opened our car doors, we could hear the buzzer,” Tewksbury said. “It would have been a lot harder to find it without the buzzers (which sound like a fire alarm). We probably would have been searching around for a while.”

The apparatus traveled 63.8 miles. “What an adventure today turned out to be!” tweeted the Billerica Memorial High School’s physics account afterward.

“It was a lot of fun and quite an adventure,” Flood said. “It was a great hands-on learning experience. They did all the calculations and predictions, and it worked out great.”

Because the students had already graduated a few days before and many were busy, only eight of them were available for the day of the experiment. However, they were able to follow along on social media and check out the GoPro photos.

Flood and Tewksbury are already thinking about next year, hoping to receive another grant. Also, Flood has talked to his friend in Windham about a joint venture.

“SUPER pumped for BMHS Physics 1st HAB (High Altitude Balloon) mission, HUGE success. 88kft better than our first try. WELL DONE & congrats! #Indianpride,” tweeted Windham’s physics account.

If you think heading to outer space is cool, what about sending a balloon from here to France? That’s what Windham has tried to do in the past, and maybe Billerica will help them get to the Eiffel Tower next year.

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Information from: The (Lowell, Mass.) Sun, http://www.lowellsun.com

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