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Local youth reaching for the stars with help of science

June 6, 2011

The sky at nearly 10 miles high turns from a soft to cobalt blue. The picture taken was from a balloon launched by kids in Bishop with an interest in science and a father with a Ph.D in Astronomy. Photo submitted courtesy of Tony Phillips

A select group of Bishop Union High School students are taking to the sky, skimming the upper atmosphere, taking pictures and experimenting with possible Martian life forms.
The students’ cosmic adventures are possible due to a father with a Doctorate in Astronomy who started teaching his curious daughter and her friends calculus in fifth grade; they’ve stayed together conducting experiments and having fun with science ever since.
The kids are Anna Herbst, Michael White, Sam Johnson, Amelia Koske-Phillips, Ginger Perez, Rachel Molina, Bronwyn Stephenson, Nick Alexander, Wyatt Walsh, Caitlyn Vargas, Melodie Aust, Aaron Lamb and Kevin Sprague.
Their latest experiment was the first of what is to be many high-altitude balloon launches “to the very edge of space,” said Tony Phillips, father and science writer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The launch on May 20 was a “test flight” Phillips said, only 10 miles into the atmosphere. “The balloon traveled so close to the edge of space that the sky turned cobalt-black.”
The balloon popped, as planned, and fell back to Earth. Equipped with a Global Positioning System device, the payload and camera were recovered by the students and Phillips in Eureka Sand Dunes of Death Valley.
He explained that the altitude of balloons can be set by the size of the balloon and the amount of helium in the balloon. He said the same measuring can be used to determine when the balloon will pop and descend.
The eventual test, Phillips said, is to float a balloon to 20 miles into the atmosphere, “to the very edge of space itself.”
Conditions at an altitude of 20 miles, or 125,000 feet, are very similar to those on Mars, Phillips said. The students want to find out if particular microbes would survive at that altitude, or Mars.
But this is just one of many experiments the small group is entrenched in.
Another experiment will be to send up a balloon in August during the Perseid meteor shower. Phillips said that at 20 miles up, the camera and balloon will be like a “cork floating on water” and should allow for a very interesting perspective of the shower at that altitude.
Another experiment has the science mixing with art in the hopes of producing an otherworldly soundtrack.
Phillips said the students, many of whom are musicians, are working with local musician Dick Dawson composing original music – part of it anyway. The other part will be the sounds of the balloon and space itself. A balloon will be sent up with a audio recording device, taping everything from the launch, the flight and winds, the balloon popping and the “eerily whaling sound” the parachute makes as it is deployed in such thin high-altitude air. The compositions are being written to provide the balloon sounds to be incorporated into the music.
The students have gone from calculus to physics to quantum physics and have studied the theory of relativity, and they’re only in ninth grade. Phillips said he hopes to get some of the experiment findings published.
“What is really exciting about this is that it is something that really gets the students pumped up about science,” Superintendent Barry Simpson said. “And, we really appreciate Tony donating so many hours after and before school, dedicated to this.”
The photos and videos of the latest flight can be viewed at and a link to a blogspot can be found there. Phillips said he hopes to upload images, videos and the music when they’re all ready.

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