Filling a 3-foot-diameter balloon with helium took about 30 minutes, but it took less than a minute for it to be in the clouds and out of plain sight.

About 150 students braved the below-freezing temperature and light wind to see the weather balloon rise into the stratosphere. And soon, the Center Grove Middle School North students would be able to see what Earth looks like from 20 miles in the air.

The eighth-grade students released a weather balloon Thursday to learn more about temperatures, wind speeds and atmospheric pressure. The project is the inaugural launch of Center Grove Middle School North’s Space program, and science teacher Jeff Peterson taught the students about weather patterns, communications and computer software in preparation for the flight.

A flight space kit, created by High Altitude Science, allows non-scientists to use small-scale weather balloons to track weather and get pictures of the Earth’s surface from the sky.

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The balloon is equipped with a parachute, cameras, a global positioning system, a satellite tracker and a computer that tracks the wind speed, air pressure, temperature and altitudes. A kit costs $675 and was paid for through the science budget, and cameras were purchased with yearbook funds.

“I didn’t expect the balloon to be that big,” eighth-grader Jason Hood said.

Since the weather balloon experiment was introduced last fall, students have kept track of temperatures and wind speeds prior to the launch, Hood said.

The students launched the balloon about 10 a.m. Thursday, and it took about two hours for it to reach its peak height of about 22,000 miles before the balloon broke and the parachute slowly brought the equipment back to Earth. Once the balloon broke, it took another hour for the structure to land back on Earth near Akron, Ohio.

Students were able to track the balloon’s three-hour flight through a global positioning system that updated every 10 minutes but could not view the photos taken or data collected until once the balloon was back on Earth.

“I always try to make my classroom an engaging, hands-on science experience for my students,” Peterson said. “Whenever possible, we use real-world science examples in a student-centered, inquiry-based learning process.”

Peterson first heard about the weather balloons after seeing the founder of High Altitude Science speak about making space-related equipment more accessible.

“(I) thought this would be a great way to teach kids about both layers of the Earth’s atmosphere and weather,” Peterson said.

Peterson said he hoped the weather balloon would land within 30 miles of Center Grove Middle School North. But by 11 a.m., the balloon had already crossed into Ohio and a couple of hours later was more than 300 miles east of Greenwood.

In eighth grade, students learn about the layers of the atmosphere. You can’t leave the lowest layer of the atmosphere, even when flying in an airplane, Peterson said. But this weather balloon allows students to see what the Earth looks like from the stratosphere, the second layer of the atmosphere between seven and 31 miles above ground.

“We will use the data collected to verify many of the concepts we have learned about in the classroom,” Peterson said.

When eighth-grade student James Harrington first heard about the project, he worried the school wouldn’t buy the balloon since it sounded too good to be true.

But to see the balloon lift off in person was a cool experience, he said.

Sending a weather balloon into space will become an annual tradition, Peterson said, along with adding more projects and experiments to the newly created school space program.

“I imagine it will become something kids remember for many years to come,” Peterson said. “I would love to have kids program their own flight computers.”

At a glance

The weather balloon kit that Center Grove eighth-graders put together was created by a company called High Altitude Science. The company’s goal was for non-scientists to be able to research and study space without needing to be an astronaut. Here’s a look at the weather balloon developed for students to use:

Cost: $675

Weight: 1.5 pounds

Ascension time: 90 to 120 minutes

Descending time: 30 to 45 minutes

Features: GPS, parachute, satellite tracker, computer that tracks the wind speed, air pressure, temperature and altitude

Source: High Altitude Science