AUGUSTA - Just because you're no longer a little kid doesn't mean you have to abandon the joy of popping balloons.

Jennifer Fowler and her crews have been doing it for six years.

Pop, pop, pop. More than two dozen times over that span, and nary a pin or needle in sight.

Monday morning, on a big ranch near the little town of Augusta, they did it again - not in the name of childlike glee, but in the name of science.

As dawn broke on the ranch, Fowler's students began rigging up the latex inflatable, tying up a payload of electronic sensors and opening up the helium tank valves to balloon the balloon to a diameter of nine feet.

Half an hour passed.

"I think we're ready to do the countdown!" Fowler yelled to the five college students and four high-schoolers involved in this forensic floating field test.

"OK, a short one!" answered Jordan Rooklyn, a University of Montana economics major. "Three ... two ... one ... let it go!"

Up, up and away went the 20-somethingth launch of a BOREALIS atmosphere balloon, on a journey that would take it to the edge of space and 54 miles southwest of the ranch over a period of more than two hours.

At 101,000 feet, with air pressure a fraction of what it is on Earth's surface, the balloon, now 42 feet in diameter and its skin stretched thin, succumbed to its inward pressure.

Pop.

***

BOREALIS is a big acronym for a pretty simple program.

Both educational and scientific in mission, the Balloon Outreach Research, Exploration and Landscape Imaging System puts middle-school and high-school students on the ground researching atmospheric data - everything from air temperature to particulate count to ozone density to the strength of ultraviolet radiation.

"We all know the basic concepts of how the atmosphere works and what the balloon is doing," said Marni Jacobs, of Missoula, who is on summer break from Williams College in Massachusetts, where she is a student. "But a lot of BOREALIS is outreach, so we show middle-school and high-school students about how things like Geiger counters work."

A program of the NASA-funded Montana Space Grant Consortium, BOREALIS originated at Montana State University and branched off to the UM campus in 2004.

Every launch starts here, on this ranch owned by retired science teacher Roger King, a site chosen for its ideal wind conditions. And every launch brings something new to the edge of space.

On Monday, it was a "sonic thermometer," an experimental technology built to measure air temperature by bouncing sound waves between two electric nodes.

It was developed and built by Anasphere Inc., of Bozeman, with a NASA Small Business Innovation research grant.

"They built it and handed it off to me," said Fowler, who is employed by UM's physics and astronomy department. "I have the instructions. And I get to turn it on."

Will the device work? The data recorded and recovered will tell in the coming days.

***

Recovery is the top priority.

GPS data is broadcast from the balloon's cargo, picked up by antennae mounted on a UM van, then routed to a laptop computer loaded with a program that can, every few seconds, place the balloon precisely where - and how far above Earth - it is.

J.P. Crawford, a UM physics major, kept an eye on the digital readout of his handheld receiver.

"We can hook these into a computer, which has software than can create points on a map," he said as the receiver squawked out altitudes of 12,000, 19,000, 36,000 feet. "We want to be able to track it."

Track it all the way up during its two-hour ascent, and all the way down during its hourlong freefall.

At 101,000 feet, the balloon burst just shy of the 113,000-foot record. Its electronic payload, housed in Styrofoam, then fell to Earth, landing 54 miles southwest on a farmer's land.

Already on motoring down the road and following its flight path via laptop was Team BOREALIS, which picked up the cargo with the help of a nice farmer.

And that's how you pop a balloon.

Big-kid style.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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