Staff Writer

Tethered balloons with tiny payloads are taking to the skies this week in pilot projects under way at three Maine high schools.

This morning, sophomores in Danielle Doucette’s biology class at Winthrop High School are scheduled to launch their balloon and miniature camera 100 feet into the air.

The tethered experiments are a teaser, designed to increase awareness and interest in astrobiology and related sciences, and to get an idea of what needs to be done for a larger ballooning experiment in the spring.

“It will get them more excited and get them thinking of what they’re going to be doing for their actual payload when they send a balloon to 100,000 feet,” Doucette said. “It might be bacteria, plant seeds, slime molds, all kinds of things. They can study the effects of temperature, pressure, humidity and radiation.”

At Winthrop, the three biology classes can each determine a separate payload.

The Astrobiology-Scientific Ballooning Pilot Project, which also is taking place in Doug Hodum’s classes at Mt. Blue High School and Amy Troiano’s classes at Westbrook High School, is sponsored by the Maine Space Grant Consortium and funded through a $400,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Doucette found out she was selected for the program last spring and spent part of the summer training at Columbia Scientific Ballooning Facility in Palestine, Texas, to learn how to bring the program to her students. She also attended a three-day conference at the University of Southern Maine.

Her biology students get assistance once a month from USM graduate students. Doucette said 10th-graders were particularly entranced by the September presentation, to which the graduate fellows brought an electron microscope.

Terry Shehata, executive director of the Augusta-based Maine Space Grant Consortium, said the program’s aim is to reach students before they choose their careers to see whether some would be interested in science and engineering.

“We’re trying to enhance the teachers’ curriculum by incorporating integrated coursework in sciences with physics and engineering,” Shehata said. “Teachers would use some elements of the astrobiology curriculum and integrate into the current curriculum to make it much more exciting for students.”

In the higher-altitude experiments, Shehata said, samples could be put into the balloon payloads and cameras would provide video and still pictures of the balloon going up and traversing the sky.

After the balloon bursts, a parachute would deploy and gently bring the payload back to Earth. Students then would collect the payloads and analyze the data collected.

“It is designed to stimulate the interest of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by incorporating science and engineering in their work and instilling way of asking questions and designing experiments to answer those questions by measurement, and collecting data, doing analysis and interpreting results,” Shehata said. “It is like a small space program with a small budget, getting kids involved in activities that almost mimic how NASA experiments are designed.”

“The real excitement will come next May when all the schools give us their payloads, and they’re put on large balloons.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.