Making phone calls, sending off text messages and snapping pictures with your cell phone is so old school — or at least so would argue the students at Potomac School in Mclean, VA who recently sent a GPS-enabled cell phone, weather balloon, small camera, and styrofoam cooler 20 miles above the earth’s surface into the blackness of space.
The team of students at Potomac School, home to the son of Wirefly’s own Chief Operating Officer Frank Bennet, launched their high-flying contraption in the early morning of June 7 after spending the school year planning the lofty mission. They drilled a hole into the side of the $6 7-Eleven-purchased cooler and mounted a small camera responsible for snapping some pretty incredible photos and video [at right] during it’s journey far beyond the reach of the signals of ground-based cellular towers.
Shielded from brutally cold temperatures reaching upwards of -70 degrees Fahrenheit by athletic hand warmers and newspapers for insulation, the cooler and electrical gear rode along with the helium-filled weather balloon. The balloon was expected to expand to about 25 feet in diameter and reach an altitude of approximately 105,000 feet before bursting. The project would then be safely guided to the ground by an on-board parachute.
Using a GPS-enabled cell phone installed with a tracking application designed to report back its position every 30 seconds, the team was able to track the early and final path of the cooler and gear as it traveled from Chambersburg Pennsylvania toward the Chesapeake Bay. Losing track of the cooler 8 minutes into the flight as it lost cellular signal, the cooler’s location was again ascertained heading toward the Eastern shore as it began its decent — despite early-morning predictions that the balloon would end its journey near Baltimore, MD.
After a 4-hour trek from Gettysburg to a remote town on the Eastern shore and overcoming obstacles locating the gear caused by poor cellular service in the area, the team successfully recovered the still-intact cooler, camera, and cell phone. A few nervous minutes later, the team was pouring through hundreds of photos and videos from where few styrofoam coolers have gone before.