Penn Hills High School students participate in their own space race |
Penn Hills

Penn Hills High School students participate in their own space race

Michael DiVittorio
Penn Hills High School senior Laurel Page launches a computer into the air with the aid of a weather balloon.
Penn Hills High School seniors Leanne Boody and Laurel Page prepare a weather balloon to launch a computer into space and take photos of the earth.
Penn Hills High School students captured this image in May 2018 showing the curvature of the earth via digital camera and computer being lifted via weather balloon launched from a field beside Penn Hills High School.
Penn Hills High School students captured this image in May 2018 of the school's field and surrounding area via digital camera and computer being lifted via weather balloon.

A group of Penn Hills High School students competed in their own version of a space race.

They worked for several months coming up with plans to launch a computer into space, have it take pictures showing the curvature of the Earth and return safely intact.

Although their payload did not reach the heights of the American and former Soviet Union rockets in the 1950s and ’60s, the young scientists did have a successful launch with a weather balloon and a lot of helium.

“I’m so proud of what my classmates and I were able to do,” senior Leanne Boody said. “Not only the results, but the influential role we all took on to make it happen.”

The project was originally a contest between three teams of two in STEM and Advanced Placement computer science teacher Teddy Gabrielson’s class. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Boody and classmates Jacob Shepard, Laurel Page, Wyatt Dymerski, Larry Bell and Angelo Capone eventually combined forces and called themselves the Nate Ferraco Coalition, named in honor of the 2015 Penn Hills graduate who died as a result of a Jan. 24, 2016, vehicle crash in Butler County. He was 18.

“Earlier in the year, the Ferraco family had contacted me about having the Nate Ferraco Memorial Fund contribute to my classroom in some way,” Gabrielson said. “When I told them about this project, they were very excited to help out.”

The family donated $500 toward the project.

Gabrielson’s class is based around Raspberry Pi computers, which are credit card-sized computers that cost about $35.

“They’re great for learning how to code and for creating physical computing projects,” he said.

Students wrote a program to control a digital camera that would take a picture every 10 seconds throughout the flight and store the images on a memory card. They 3D-printed plastic pieces to protect the camera from the elements.

“It took about five to six months of individual team research before the proposals were due, and then three months of all of us working together as a team to figure out where, what, and when we were going to launch the balloon,” senior Laurel Page explained. “The balloon needs a certain amount of helium to do its job. The more you go over that amount, the lower the balloon can travel in the atmosphere.”

The flight lasted about three hours and reached an approximate altitude of 30,000 feet. A parachute was used to land the camera safely.

A GPS device was used to track the payload. It was picked up in Dayton,Armstrong County, about an hour’s drive northeast of Penn Hills.

“Thousands of pictures were taken throughout the flight and everything worked great,” Gabrielson said.

Also in the package were Lego Star Wars figurines Han Solo and Chewbacca.

Boody said it was an exhilarating and rewarding project to work on, even through its uncertainty.

“Working on this project was like putting all our eggs into one basket, then throwing it off the roof of a building,” she said. “This whole thing could’ve been a huge waste of time and money, a failure, and a forgotten project, but because we did it anyway we got to see how our hard work turned into a major accomplishment.”

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.

Correction: June 14, 2018

This story was modified to correct the spelling of Nate Ferraco’s name.

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