Science project is sky-high

A group of six Yalies went trekking Saturday through a dim forest in Liberty Hill, Conn., in search of a treasured, Styrofoam box.

“It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere in the woods,” John Kim ’11 said.

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A camera affixed to the students’ balloon captured images every 10 seconds as it rose into the stratosphere.
A camera affixed to the students’ balloon captured images every 10 seconds as it rose into the stratosphere.

After roughly 40 minutes had passed, sunlight was fading and the group was growing concerned and feeling unsafe.

“We were beginning to lose hope,” Kim said.

The box, which contained a digital camera holding prized aerial images of Earth, was attached to a meter-wide, helium-filled balloon the students had launched that afternoon in the open field near Sloane Physics Laboratory on Science Hill. The students were members of Design at Yale, a graphic design club started this past September by Kim, the group’s co-president. They had inserted a cell phone into the box in order to track the balloon’s location via GPS, and the camera inside automatically took photos every 10 seconds with the goal of capturing high-resolution digital images from space that showed the curvature of the Earth.

After about an hour of searching using an iPhone that was receiving coordinates from the balloon’s cell phone, group member Zach Rotholz ’11 spotted the box, and the students started to cheer.

Then and there, still in the dark forest, the students put the camera’s memory card into a laptop to see if they had captured their much-anticipated photos.

“It was a very proud moment for all of us,” Kim said. “I never thought I’d be able to take pictures from space.”

The laptop screen lit up, and after scrolling through the more than 700 newly loaded photos, the students saw that the camera had successfully captured the images showing the curvature of the earth. A second round of screams broke out.

(Click here to watch Kim’s video documentary of the group launching the balloon, recovering the styrofoam box and retrieving the photos taken from space.)

Physics lecturer Stephen Irons, who assisted the group with the launch, said the balloon probably reached the upper stratosphere; while the GPS used to track the balloon could not send signals once the balloon went more than 20,000 feet in the air, its maximum altitude of between 15 and 19 miles in the air was estimated based on the balloon’s size specifications and helium content, and on Irons’ analysis of the photos taken.

Members of Design at Yale — an organization that is devoted to all types of design and creates logos, T-shirts and posters for campus organizations — said the idea for the balloon launch was inspired by a similar project Massachusetts Institute of Technology students performed this past September.

“I thought Design at Yale would be the perfect group for it, and it worked out,” said the group’s treasurer, Kyle Miller ’12.

Kim approached Irons to help with the project after physics class one day. Irons said he was impressed by the fact that “with their own equipment, [the students] actually proved the Earth is round.”

While the group got its ideal results, Irons and Miller said that the project was risky. Both said they had doubts, including whether the box would get caught in a tree or land in a lake and whether they would be able to find it. In addition, though the group hoped the balloon would land in an accessible spot based on computer simulations, there was no way to know whether the camera would work properly, Kim said.

“There were so many variables that could have gone wrong with this project,” he said. “Given that everything went well, it was great.”

The group plans to use the photos in an exhibition and in a journal featuring the project, said Fidel Gurrola ’12, co-president of Design at Yale, which has about 20 members.

The project, which cost $140, was funded by the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee.


  • Anonymous

    Realy bright project. No parachute for the data box in case the ballon pops (which they do which could have killed someone when it fell back to earth). I assume no FAA waiver also.

    I really would expect something better from students who are supposely bright.

  • y11

    This is one of those things that reminds me how cool people at Yale can be (something that is easy to forget after 2.5 years). Really, really impressive!

  • Kyle Miller(DAY)

    @#1: The balloon was designed to pop at altitude, we had streamers to slow the descent, the terminal velocity of the styrofoam box was not very high (not even close to lethal), and the FAA allows launches like this without a permit if the craft is under 4 lbs. (which it was). So don’t worry, we thought about all that. :)

  • Tanner

    Fun project I’m glad their where some safety features built in. Allowing Yale to verify both Columbus and Newton.

  • Y’10

    Truly impressive. This is the kind of engineering activity that Yale needs to promote to even come close to MIT or Olin. Instead, engineers graduate from Yale with 2 hours of machine shop instruction and “research” experience that’s actually more applied physics than practical engineering. I think Yale would have figured out by now simply pumping money into faculty research isn’t going to fix the undergraduate curriculum.

  • awesome!

    This is so damn cool! Wish I could’ve been involved with this. Well done, all.

  • Cynthia Weaver ’12

    @#3–I smiled when I read this–glad that you guys had it all under control, way to be on top of it! cool project!!

  • @ #1

    This was a great project, good job guys….#1, you should take notes, especially as someone who clearly has trouble spelling “really” and “supposedly.”

  • Frank Teng (DAY)

    @#1: I’d also like to add that the box, when retrieved, didn’t even show considerable signs of damage.

    I’m glad that we’ve reached your expectations of supposedly bright students.

  • @#8

    #1 also misspelled “balloon”.

  • PhysAlum

    If there is something negative and vaguely accusatory to say, a YDN commenter will say it.

    Seriously, this is an awesome project! Good job!

  • yalie

    Just curious, what was the max height that the balloon attained, and how did you guys know where it landed? Was there a GPS device affixed to it?

  • steve giarratana

    I cant believe you idiots did this.
    Do you realize that your “cute” balloon can be missed by RADAR,
    and you could take down an airliner or small airplane.

    YALE? Parents with money and kids who DONT even think before they act.

    Sorry, but I’m a private pilot, and I do not want to die and leave my wife without income, because of some young stupid students.

  • hmm

    not that I know much, but I’m pretty sure a giant balloon is just as easy, if not easier, to avoid than a few birds.

    Parents with money? I’m not sure how that even relates to anything.

  • @ steve giarratana

    you are not very bright I assume. because you make so many erroneous claims that are not validated with anything.

    This project (what I infer from the previous comments) was 100% legal and very well-planned by intelligent students. That is why the mission was a success.

    In addition, every single sentence that you wrote made no sense, reaffirming the fact that you’re not that intelligent

  • Steve Giarratana

    You are right. I am not intelligent. (just ask my wife!)

    As a pilot who spent years training to follow procedures, I was taken back by
    the comments ….. a 3 foot wide balloon with camera attached …. a “cool project”.

    My statement on ‘parents with money’ was not clear (sorry). The point I (poorly) made, was that (parents) money does not always buy good decision making.

    If the falling balloon injured or killed someone, how would that reflect on Yale & its students?

    If the rising balloon hit an airplane or Life-Star helicopter, how would that reflect on Yale?

    Seriously, I am proud to have Yale University in my back yard as a CT resident.

    I hope better planning is used next time. Maybe … a way to control the path and descent of the balloon/camera.

    Thanks for reading!

    -Steve Giarratana, Middlefield, CT.

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