Fairfield Prep students go above and beyond

If anyone in Hartford had reported an unidentified flying object Aug. 19, the Federal Aviation Administration would have assured them that what they were seeing was two Trumbull teens’ science project.

The two, Kyle Ryan, 17, and Ethan Kee, 15, are students at Fairfield Prep. On that summer day six months of preparation culminated in the friends launching a weather balloon with cameras and various scientific instruments to more than 65,000 feet, nearly a mile above the defined limit of “near space” and about twice as high as a Boeing 747’s cruising altitude. At that altitude, the air pressure is about 4% of what it is at sea level and the temperature averages about -70°F.

“It was just something we decided to do, see if we could send a camera into near space and track its path,” Kyle said. “The payload was two GPSs, a ham radio and a camera.”

The launch site was Brookfield High School, a site chosen because it lessened the chances that the balloon would come down in Long Island Sound or the Atlantic Ocean. Once launched, there was no way to control its flight.

According to the instrument readings, the balloon climbed at a rate of about 1,000 feet per minute for an hour. As it climbed into the atmosphere, the decreasing air pressure caused the balloon to increase in diameter until it burst at 65,000 feet, a height of more than 12 miles. Once the balloon burst, the instruments parachuted back down to Earth, eventually landing in a state forest near Sturbridge, Mass.

Kyle Ryan, left, and Ethan Kee prepare the payload for their experimental balloon launch Aug. 19. The teens sent cameras and GPS tracking units to a height of 65,000 feet, twice as high as an airliner’s cruising altitude.

Kyle Ryan, left, and Ethan Kee prepare the payload for their experimental balloon launch Aug. 19. The teens sent cameras and GPS tracking units to a height of 65,000 feet, twice as high as an airliner’s cruising altitude.

“It went farther than we thought it would, covering about 60 miles during the flight,” Kyle said. “It took photos as it crossed over Hartford and over the Massachussetts border.”

Before conducting the experiment, it was necessary to get clearance from the FAA. The agency required advance notice and information about the payload and expected flight path.

“There were some regulations we had to follow, like the payload had to be less than four pounds and it had to have a parachute,” Kyle said.

The on-board camera snapped a photo every 15 seconds, while the GPS units recorded the flight path. The cameras photographed Connecticut, Massachussetts, Long Island Sound, the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. The GPS also proved invaluable in finding the payload once it landed.

“It came down in a really dense forest, and it took about an hour to find it,” Kyle said. “It was actually about 60 feet up in a tree and we had to cut it down.”

The balloon flight was just the latest science experiment for Kyle, who has participated in the state science fair for the past five years, since he was a seventh grader at St. Catherine of Siena. He said he plans to see if he can send a camera even higher into the stratosphere next summer.

“This time I’ll go for 100,000 feet,” he said.

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