GREAT FALLS - Student experiments flying nearly 25 miles above Antarctica had to be brought down early to prevent them from drifting out to sea.
The 950 student experiments from Montana, three other states, the District of Columbia and Australia were testing how exposure to high altitude, extreme cold, space radiation and ultraviolet rays affect ordinary materials.
The experiment, directed through Washington University in St. Louis, was to remain aloft for 30 days, but had to be brought down on Jan. 4 after 18 days.
Michelle Larson, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University, said that monitoring scientists were afraid the wind would take the balloon too far off course, so they sent a radio command to cut the balloon from the payload container holding the experiments. The container landed near Mawson, an Australian base across the Antarctic continent from the McMurdo Station where the balloon was expected to land.
Students from 10 Montana schools prepared experiments for the project.
In Great Falls, North Middle School science teacher Mick Beck said his five seventh-grade classes chose to test rubber bands, hair gel, Mountain Dew, sunscreen and Beck's favorite candy - PEZ.
"At first glance, some of their choices might seem pretty silly, but they debated them and had some pretty good reasons for most that could help advance science," Beck said. "And it was valuable to get them involved in the scientific process of how to set up and carry through experiments."
Beck said the food and drink experiments could help NASA learn more about storing foods in space. Similarly, checking how the rubber bands fared could help with space suits and capsules, and the sunscreen check could help improve protection for mountain climbers.
East Middle School students experimented with Silly Putty, ultraviolet beads, a yellow highlighter, a black-painted paper clip and sterilized clay from the Berkeley Pit in Butte.
The items were sealed in vials made of high-impact plastic with a screw-in top sealed with duct tape, Beck said.
Aria 9 project leader Keith Bennett from Washington University said he doesn't know whether recovering the payload will have to wait until next year.