FAIRBANKS, Alaska — High on a mountain road beyond a city that’s fast-asleep, the starry midnight sky is transformed into a vast canvas for one of nature’s most stunning celestial displays: aurora borealis, a.k.a. northern lights. Neon-green swaths are painted across the blackness, before breaking apart and expanding into towering spectral columns in an ever-changing opus that leaves roadside admirers in awe.
But on this night, as during the past several nights, a surreal atmosphere created by the collision of charged particles and atoms is made more bizarre by the sight of a billowing white balloon rising to greet the aurora. Beneath this pale figure is an experimentation payload outfitted with GoPro cameras that — it’s hoped — will photograph the phenomenon from eye-level.
It’s part of an ambitious endeavor titled Project Aether, an attempt by scientists and educators to inspire the next generation of researchers with vivid illustration that edge-of-space study can be performed inexpensively and effectively, and that physics-related science is not boring.
“We want to show that part of science is the adventure,” says Elizabeth Henriquez, a veteran teacher who’s planning a curriculum based on experimentation with high-altitude balloons. “Science doesn’t just have to be sitting behind a desk and saying, ‘What am I learning out of this book?’ “
Caption: Balloon is to the left and a radar station is to the right, atop Murphy Dome Rd., outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Credit for all images: Luke Kilpatrick
Project Aether, though fairly new, has collaborated with schools for previous balloon missions elsewhere in the U.S. But from a pure adventure standpoint, the rugged Alaskan wilderness trumps all previous destinations.
A team led by Ben Longmier, a physicist at the University of Houston and chief research scientist at the Ad Astra Rocket Company, has spent nearly two weeks launching payloads designed to gather information and footage for science-minded students. The helium-filled balloons are engineered to explode at 100,000 feet, or the edge of space, releasing payloads to parachute back to earth. They weigh 4-6 pounds and contain GPS units to reveal their position.
But before this luminous auroral display only three recoveries had been accomplished, while 10 payloads remained in the wilderness. Recovery attempts were carried out with helicopters, snowmobiles and snowshoes. One of the recovered payloads landed 30 miles away in dense woods, and required a 27-hour snowmobile retrieval effort, during which the glowing eyes of a wolf shone from the periphery.
Footage of the aurora was not captured by cameras fixed to any of the three recovered payloads, either because of poor atmospheric conditions, unpredictable winds or other factors that required more engineering and experimentation. “We found that we can’t use duct tape because it becomes so cold that it rips in half,” Longmier says. “Also, zip ties shatter in the cold temperatures, and lithium-based camera batteries lose some voltage in such cold weather, so we’ve had to improvise.”
More recent payloads have contained oxygen-activated hand-warmers to keep camera batteries charged, and scientifically-balanced PVC rods to prevent payloads from spinning while recording video.
Students follow Project Aether via its blog and, eventually, in classrooms. Participating classrooms receive small U.S. flags that had been packed inside payloads and “kissed the aurora.” Graduate and undergraduate students have participated on site.
Plasma instruments have been sent up to learn more about the dynamics of an aurora, so the phenomenon might someday become more easily predicted. Undergraduates recently sent up and recovered a bacteria strain, and will use a gene-sequence tool to determine the extent of damage to the strain, caused by cosmic rays and radiation. There are few limitations, as long as experiment tools fit into a lunchbox-sized payload.
Clearly, grade-school-level students will not be accompanying Longmier and his team on such grandiose and expensive expeditions to places such as Alaska (Project Aether is via college grants and a GoPro sponsorship.) But thanks to advances in technology and the advent of small, durable high-definition cameras, students may become more inclined to pay attention and aspire to become scientists.
Ultimately, Henriquez predicts, more students will perform their own experiments generated from within classrooms. An instruction network is being set up for teachers wishing to participate in balloon-launching and payload recovery, and a set of simplified “canned experiments” will simplify the process.
Cost is somewhat prohibitive — a large latex balloon, the helium to fill the balloon, a GPS unit and a GoPro camera runs about $600. But most elements are reusable and experiments could be as simple as applying the proper physics necessary to keep a balloon at a certain altitude for a specified amount of time.
Whether Project Aether attains a large-scale following remains to be seen. But in the darkness of this frigid mid-April night, with a dazzling aurora still prominent across the heavens, this much is clear:
Bundled-up visitors from across the U.S. — they include Luke Kilpatrick, Justin Gural, Stef Michaels, Jessica Gottlieb, Kristen Chase, Kelly Wickham, Reid Gower, Aaron Hockley and Joanne Manaster — are spellbound as they gaze skyward and begin to cross one of the planet’s true natural wonders off their bucket lists.
“I didn’t even know I had a bucket list,” one of them exclaims, drawing laughter from the others. “But this is definitely on it, so I’m crossing it off.”