Huskers put science into near-space during gameday experiment

4-H'ers, science teachers and students across Nebraska and some 85,000 fans in Memorial Stadium will participate in a large experiment on Sept. 15 with high-altitude balloons. And astronaut and Nebraska native Clayton Anderson will be here to lend a hand.

Two launches actually will take place with K-12 and college students embedding experiments in payloads of two high-altitude balloons, also known as weather balloons. The balloons will be released and travel as far as 20 miles up -- into an area known as "near space" -- and return (hopefully) safely to earth where the experimenters can see what happened, examine some really cool near-space photos, and check their data.

The first-of-its-kind game-day project is a collaboration of the Strategic Air and Space Museum, the Department of Physics, the NASA Nebraska Space Grant Consortium, Omaha Public Schools, Lincoln Public Schools, UNL 4-H and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Its objective is to interest students in science by building on their fascination with balloons, outer space, creatively constructing and sending stuff nearly into outer space.

Using high-altitude balloons for tracking and recording is not new, but it's becoming more common, easier, and more sophisticated, said Brad Barker, 4-H Youth Development associate professor at UNL.

Loaded with Automatic Packet Recording Systems, GPS, cameras and pods encasing other data-collectors or experiments, the nearly 8-foot helium-filled balloons will carry up to 12 pounds of payload. Building the payload boxes or pods is part of the students' work setting up the project: layers of foam wrapped with tape, carefully holding the precious cargo as lightly as possible.

Science teachers have been involved in workshops through the Strategic Air and Space Museum to learn to build the pods and set up experiments. Teachers interested in the project will be able to build lessons around the Sept. 15 experiment and students -- and fans -- will be able to track the balloons' progress via the automatic packet recording systems transmitters live at

Post-flight videos also will be posted to YouTube at and on Facebook.

When the balloons reach their near-space altitude, they will expand to more than 30 feet in diameter until they burst and the payload will fall back to earth -- where the experimenters will be able to easily find where they fall because of the tracking devices.

"There is a lot of science behind this," Barker said. "Students get excited about this… like their work with robots… it's applying scientific inquiry to real situations."

Teachers and students across Nebraska, in addition to 4-H'ers, can get involved. Many classrooms already are participating in the Cosmic Ray Observatory Project through UNL's Physics Department, led by professors Dan Claes and Greg Snow. The balloon pods will be carrying cosmic ray sensors to track rays in the near-space atmosphere. The timing of this event commemorates the 100th anniversary of manned balloon flights by Austrian Victor Hess who first showed that cosmic radiation comes from outer space in the fall of 1912. Hess was awarded a Nobel Prize for this discovery.

Omaha Bryan Middle and Omaha McMillan Magnet schools each have students with experiments participating in the launch and OPS has participated in experimental design competition for students in a new required physical science class.

Anderson is Nebraska's most famous astronaut; a graduate of Ashland-Greenwood High School, he has participated in six space flights and has been aboard the International Space Station. He and students will be available to meet the public and talk about the experiment at Husker Nation Pavilion, prior to the game.

The balloon launch information is being shared with hundreds of the nation's top middle and high school science students through the National Science Olympiad. UNL will be the 2015 site of the National Science Olympiad, a two-day competitive science event.

- Kelly Bartling