PLP Passport Project: Wingardium Leviosa

A high altitude balloon (HAB) is an odd thing for two physicists, a mathematician, and a biologist to have in common. At the beginning of this year, however, that is exactly what the four of us–Sierra, Cam, Maddie, and McKenzie–proposed to do: launch a HAB to the edge of space.

There were a couple motivations for this besides the obvious “cool factor” of capturing our own video that detailed the curvature of the Earth. For one, the annual Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC) is a competition, and we’re all guilty of possessing a bit of a competitive streak. However, we knew that the chances of us taking home the metaphorical trophy as first year participants was low. Still, it seemed like a great chance to grow a yearly event for future DU scientists with the Society of Physics Students as a home. Either way, the challenge provided the opportunity to earn a little more recognition for the sciences at the University of Denver.

Of course, as PLP students, we were also excited to put our leadership skills to the test in an area of our own expertise: science. While many DU students studying the sciences further their own research during their undergraduate, rarely do they collaborate with so many fellow students, and it is even more unlikely they directly engage the DU and Denver communities. It was our plan make the launch of our HAB a DU-wide event that includes DU students and faculty. This was our opportunity to start a collaborative project within the sciences at DU, and it would take all our leadership skills to make it happen.

It did. From the initial search for a home for our new event, to gathering an excited workforce, to executing work days, it was empowering to realize the PLP had given us the skills necessary to coordinate a large-scale scientific research oriented event. We planned, built, and double checked the plan (we were a team of only Blue Insights color energies, after all).

Then, launch day was upon us.

Unfortunately, the cloudless sky from the day before had not remained, and the windspeed sat consistently at 9.5 mph. That’s what the Wind Power Weather Center told us afterwards, anyway. At the time, we just knew it was breezy enough that filling the high altitude balloon might be a challenge. Still, it wasn’t raining and Santiago’s burritos for our expected crowd of 40 people were in hand, so spirits were high.

As it turned out, filling the balloon was a bit of a challenge. Because our GoPros only had enough battery life for the duration of the launch, they had to be turned on and secured immediately before we let the balloon lift off. Of course, because the GoPros went inside our payload, this meant the payload couldn’t be sealed and attached to the parachute until the last minute, either. So the four of us immediately broke into teams; Maddie and I grappled with duct tape and strings while Cam and Sierra kept the HAB grounded as it filled with the absolute minimum amount of helium necessary to allow lift-off.

The crowd of our friends, professors, and peers chattered behind us as we all worked to attach the payload to the now-inflated-HAB. Once the final knot had been tied and the final layer of duct tape applied, we hesitantly stepped back and asked the crowd to begin a countdown. With a half-terrified, half-excited cry of “Wingardium Leviosa” our balloon was spiraling up into the air and out of sight.

So, we waited. Every ten minutes we’d refresh our SPOT app and watch anxiously for the next GPS point to appear. Sam tracked the second tracker which relayed altitude. It climbed, and climbed, and climbed to our last known data point at 99, 318 ft. The picture below shows our HAB’s path in the X and Y coordinate plane–basically, you can’t tell how high in the air the balloon is at each point.


When it dropped rapidly in the next two minutes, we frantically ran calculations and wondered if the parachute had deployed. Luckily, it had. Of course, the part that was unlucky, we were to find out after an hour drive to retrieve it, was that the balloon had picked the only tree in all of Eastern Colorado to land in. Below, Sam can be seen trying to retrieve our payload.


Despite the planning of all four blues in our group, we did not foresee this. Still, with the help of a wonderful farmer named Joe, we were able to navigate this unfortunate path of white-water. The GoPros were intact, and we had successfully captured the curvature of the Earth in the video below.

Click here to see what the GoPro captured!

No, the University of Denver’s Global Space Balloon Challenge team did not break any records for height, distance traveled, or launch duration. Still, we achieved what we set out to do and simultaneously set the stage for future balloon enthusiasts. Without the funding from the PLP Passport Grant, we never would have had the means to buy the expensive start-up equipment ballooning requires. We never would have been able to capture the shining curve of the Earth. We never would have been able to explore leadership in the context of the sciences.

Without the support of our dedicated PLP Alumni, team Wingardium Leviosa never would have left the ground.


Post written by: Sierra Ashley, Maddie Doering, Cameron Hickert, & McKenzie Ramirez

This project was made possible through the awarding of a Passport Grant made possible by the generous contributions of PLP Alumni and Friends. Thank you to all who empower PLPers to do amazing things!


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