Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Pupils' space mission all at sea as weather probe comes back to Earth with a splash

The students from Armagh launch their weather probe
The students from Armagh launch their weather probe

A team of Armagh students have been overwhelmed by the social media response to their plea for help in finding a rogue weather probe that was recording conditions on the edge of space.

The device – which included a basic computer, video apparatus and data recording equipment carried by a helium-filled balloon – floated up 120,000 feet to the edge of space when it was released last week. But the probe was lost when it was swept into Dundalk Bay by the wind as it descended.

It leaves the eight pupils who designed it unable to retrieve the valuable information they had collected.

Dundalk Search and Rescue and local fishermen have pitched in to help with the search for the instrument, whose GPS switched off when it landed in the waters of Dundalk Bay.

There are fears it could have been swept further out into the Irish Sea by the currents and could fetch up almost anywhere, according to education officer Daniel O'Reilly, who was working with the team as part of a science and technology bootcamp at the AmmA Centre in Armagh.

He said the young people have been exploring all sorts of science during the workshops but the flagship project was the weather probe – dubbed Project Infinity – and its findings were to have been submitted for a number of science competitions.

The weather balloon, whose name is inspired by the Toy Story animated movies, carried a tiny spaceman which had been christened 'Buzz' by the students, after Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear. It was designed by the students themselves and included a home-made computer to record atmospheric conditions.

Staff from Armagh Observatory, Met Eireann, the Met Office and the Civil Aviation Authority all had an input into the project.

"We launched it at Navan Fort at midday on Thursday and it went up to about 120,000 feet, which is near space in military terms," Mr O'Reilly said.

"It parachuted back down to about 10,000 feet and then the wind took it out into Dundalk Bay, and when we went to to look for it the GPS had switched off.

"We think it has drifted possibly into the Irish Sea so it could end up anywhere along the coast of Ireland, and we're trying to make as many people as possible aware in case someone sees it.

"If it goes into the Irish Sea, the current could take it down the coast in the direction of Bettystown or Dublin, or it could take it up to Scotland. We are sort of hoping it is going north and will wash up on the coast."

Mr O'Reilly said the project will grind to a halt unless the team can retrieve the data, but they were overwhelmed when they put out their plea for help on social media.

"It has been huge. There have been lots and lots of tweets and retweets," he said.

The probe was collecting data on wind, humidity and the route of the balloon and the team were hoping to have that information ready for the first science competition this weekend.

"It was collecting video footage from the sky of mid Ulster as it went up and after that there was footage of the curvature of the Earth that would be super inspiring for all the people at boot camp," Mr O'Reilly said.

The probe should stand up to the force of the waves as long as its lid stays on, as it is insulated in a styrofoam box, he said.

FACTFILE

The Irish Sea, also known as the Mann Sea, Manx Sea and Celtic Sea, separates the islands of Ireland and Britain. It covers 45,000km and reaches 300m deep. It is connected to the Celtic Sea in the south by St George's Channel, and to the Atlantic Ocean in the north by the North Channel. Strong winds and shallow waters make it suitable for offshore wind farms.

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