On April 2, MSJ Youth4Climate launched their first high-altitude weather balloon at Natividad Creek Park in Salinas, CA. Club members, mentors, and other student participants met at 8 a.m. and launched their balloon at roughly 11:30 a.m. to collect and analyze atmospheric data.
Using an Arduino microcontroller and climate-related sensors, the balloon took stratospheric measurements including ozone concentration, temperature, pressure, and humidity. Students stored these sensors, cameras, GPS trackers, and other scientific equipment inside a foam box, or payload, that was connected to the six-foot-wide balloon. The balloon then rose through the stratosphere, popped at a certain pressure differential, and deployed a parachute to descend back to solid ground. The GPS trackers were used to locate and collect the balloon and payload.
To build each part of this project, roughly 22 student participants collaborated in multiple software, hardware, and launch teams with guidance from MSJ Class of 2010 Alumnus David Cao and Class of 2014 Alumni Andrew Chin and Eric Chin. Last year during the pandemic, the Chin siblings tackled the same challenge of building the balloon, working out the hardware details with a separate team via Zoom and launching the balloon successfully. With this year being in person, the alumni took a bigger role in volunteering to mentor the club members through workshops and office hours. Eric Chin stressed the importance of the project’s hardware aspect: “There’s something about doing something on the computer and then seeing it do things in the real world that provides a whole level of connection and perspective.”
With input from the alumni’s prior launch, Youth4Climate’s balloon featured updated equipment and experiments. With a new radio, students received live location updates rather than updates every five or ten minutes, and the club was able to test a solar panel to transition away from battery packs and make the project more sustainable.
Although the launch and landing were smooth, the club did encounter obstacles with their tracking systems during the flight. “Our tracking systems cut out in the middle for quite a while, so we were a bit worried where the payload would land and if we would be able to even get it,” MSJ Youth4Climate President Senior Inimai Subramanian said. “We lost the payload for at least an hour and a half during the flight, [but before] the payload landed we finally got signals from our GPS and cell trackers.”
Throughout the months leading up to the launch, Math and Computer Science Teacher Charles Brucker provided additional support and advice by helping to supply equipment and connect members with the alumni. He emphasized the importance of tying engineering into climate science, offering full support for the project’s future endeavors. “At the deepest level, I want to see good responsible stewards of this planet, and that requires a foundation in science,” Brucker said. “[To] next year’s students who [will be] helping us with the launch: I’m going to support you in any way I can.”
In the future, the club aims to launch multiple payloads and to include more scientific experiments, such as examining how bacteria would be affected in different atmospheres. The project’s website development team is working to release a website as well that will act as both a publicizing platform and a repository for the collected information. Subramanian hopes the data that students will soon analyze will be able to make a case on climate change’s impending speed, such as with temperature readings. “I really hope that [this project] can … give an urgency and warning about how near climate change is but also that there are things you can do to combat it in the right way,” Subramanian said.