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Sep 24, 2023

Students and staff prepare to launch a high-altitude balloon with the University of Wyoming's NASA Space Grant Consortium at Casper's Excel Academy in 2020. The private school again launched a balloon on May 10, 2023. (Screenshot Courtesy University of Wyoming via YouTube)

CASPER, Wyo. — The blazing white object hovering in Casper's clear blue sky on Wednesday morning was the subject of numerous threads among some local Facebook groups.

Theories ranged from lost promotional balloons from a local car dealership to the more nefarious "big brother" types.

Turns out the balloon was indeed carrying several lightweight high-definition cameras and other data-measurement equipment. It also carried apples, grapes, popcorn, chocolate bars, Jolly Ranchers, chips, ketchup packets, s’mores and some gum.

"Lots of food," said Jennifer Wistisen, executive director and educator at Excel Academy, a private K–12 school in Casper.

The balloon is a floating lab launched with the University of Wyoming's NASA Space Grant Consortium. The program visits sites and schools around the state to help facilitate high-altitude balloon launches, allowing students and educators to devise their own experiments and take part in the process.

The latex balloon can float beyond 90,000 feet above Earth, high enough to bring back jaw-dropping footage of the Earth's curvature glowing against the blackness of space. The payload experiments are intended to see how that incredible journey affects different items, if at all.

"So first thing in the morning, we will analyze that data, and [the students] will get to taste the apple versus the apple that stayed on the ground," said Wistisen, "and analyze their hypothesis and see if there's any structural changes, like changes to texture and color, things like that."

They’ll also be curious to see if those ketchup packets burst, if the popcorn popped, and so forth.

GPS devices allow the teams to keep track of the balloon as it's carried along by wind and currents while floating higher until finally bursting in the thin atmosphere. The UW team can often predict quite closely where the balloon will end up going, and roughly where its payload will touch down. In this case, a picture-perfect launch day ended with the payload landing on a ranch near Midwest — just as expected.

Wistisen says there have been times when landowners aren't too thrilled when asked for access to retrieve the payloads. There were no issues this time. "They were very gracious and thought it was very cool," she said. "They were so stoked."

There are times when the students can join in the retrieval process, but often the logistics of schlepping dozens of young kids through ranch land is simply prohibitive. This was the case on Wednesday afternoon, so the examination of food and data will take place first thing Thursday morning, just before students head off to track day.

A video from Excel Academy's 2020 high-altitude balloon launch can be seen here.

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