North Dakota Space Grant holds annual Near-Space Balloon Competition

Marissa Saad, left, coordinator for NASA’s North Dakota Space Grant program, gathers participants in Saturday's weather balloons launch as they prepare for lift-off. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — North Dakota students may have been cold as they braved single-digit temperatures on Saturday, Nov. 17, to launch a pair of large balloons 100,000 feet into the sky, but UND scientists said it was much colder where the balloons were off to.

“It reaches, like, negative 80 degrees up there,” said Marissa Saad, coordinator for NASA’s North Dakota Space Grant program. “So we’re freezing, but the equipment and the balloons are all good.”

The NASA grant funds the annual Near-Space Balloon Competition, an event that brings North Dakota students of all levels — graduate, high, middle and elementary school — together for the sake of science.

Students from about 10 North Dakota towns were at the launch outside Discovery Elementary School Saturday morning, some from as far as Bismarck. The students spent the year designing their own styrofoam payload boxes to ride the balloons into near-space, carrying experiments they created to test how different objects might fare at such high altitudes. Items this year represented a variety of subjects including technology, biology, agriculture and engineering.

“We’ve got a really, really great group of students,” said Denise Buckner, a University of North Dakota master’s student focusing on space studies. “They’ve put in so much work, and I’m referring both to the student teams as well as our graduate students, who put in endless hours preparing this, being mentors for the students, helping them build their payloads, really engaging with them and helping guide them along the way.”

The balloons traveled at 5 meters per second, carrying GPS tracking equipment that students will use to find out where their boxes land. In the past, Buckner said some experiments have gotten as far away as Bemidji.

“We’ve had one land in Red Lake,” she said. “We actually had to take some kayaks out to go get it. … We’ve had several in trees, and a couple times we’ve gotten lucky and they’ve just landed in a field in a state park.”

Fifth-graders and high school students from Medina sent succulents into near-space this year.

“The next thing they’re going to do is look at the data,” high school science teacher Kaylie Bjorstad said. “And check out the succulents. Are they going to grow? Are they going to die? Then we’ll write up a report on it.”

Jessica Schlecht, who teaches fifth-graders in Medina, said her students worked on the experiment with the high schoolers.

“They have fully enjoyed working on this stuff,” she said of the kids.”They ask amazing questions, just scientific questions I would’ve never thought they would think of, so this has been amazing to have them be a part of.”

“It’s really really great to be able to involve kids from all across the state, especially from rural communities, in NASA-funded research,” Buckner said. “And it’s a really great way to get kids involved in STEM and get them thinking about starting a career in science, engineering, math, technology.”