Look Up! NUI Galway Leads Irish High Altitude Balloon Mission to Edge of Space

From left, pupils at Scoil Mhuire Oranmore who are taking part in NUI Galway led Space Ship Earth mission. Photo: NUI Galway.
Jun 30 2021 Posted: 12:45 IST

The final frontier for engaging school children with Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) learning

Researchers at NUI Galway are leading a Science Foundation Ireland Discover programme team with partners University of Limerick, Met Éireann and Lero, the SFI Research Centre for Software, to deliver school children’s projects high into the stratosphere to examine the effects of near space on the experiments.

The ‘Spaceship Earth’ project delivered two space themed workshops to primary school children in Galway, Limerick and Kerry. In these workshops children were taught about the importance of Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) how to ask interesting scientific questions, and then to develop experiments to find the answers.

The project involves launching five high altitude weather balloons from Met Éireann’s observatory in Valentia in Co. Kerry on Friday, 2 July. The researchers expect these will reach more than 30Km (100,000 feet) and will expose the payload experiments to the extreme environment of low pressure, low temperature and cosmic radiation. After maximum ascent the space balloon bursts, and a parachute is deployed which ensures a safe landing back to earth. The payload is instrumented with electronics such as GPS, data loggers, and tracking technology to accurately find its return location. Once the experiments return, students will engage in analysis and discussion about their experiments that will extend and deepen students’ learning.

Lero’s Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Project Lead and Professor of Medical Device Technology and Director of the HIVE lab at NUI Galway, said: “This exciting Spaceship Earth STEMM outreach project mission aims to inspire and empower students to think big, beyond the horizon and show them that involvement in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine is for everyone."

Charles Gillman, Chief Operations Officer at Met Éireann’s Valentia Observatory, said: “Met Éireann has a long history of launching weather balloons at Valentia Observatory, with the first launched in the early 1940s.  Every day since, these balloons have been providing valuable information on current atmospheric conditions that are essential in helping to produce our weather forecasts in Ireland and around the world.”

Mr Gillman added: “We are delighted for our weather balloons to play a part in the Spaceship Earth project and look forward to learning the results of this exciting and inspirational STEMM experiment – it really is out of this world!”

Potential STEMM experiments include:

  • Learning about randomised control trial design by taking 10 sunflower seeds and allocating five for spaceflight and five to remain as a control and then monitoring their growth afterwards to see the effect of the intervention (spaceflight).
  • Exploring the low-pressure effects of high altitude on the shape of bubble wrap, grapes, or marshmallows.
  • Investigating the high-altitude Environmental effects on a wet sponge – will the water boil off?
  • Examining how zero gravity affects the operation of medical technology?

The Spaceship Earth mission included over 300 students in three schools in the west and south of Ireland: Scoil Mhuire, Oranmore, Galway; Scoil Iosagain, CBS, Limerick, and Scoil An Chroi Naofa, Presentation, Tralee Kerry.

Principal Edel Carney, Scoil Mhuire, Oranmore, Galway, said: “Spaceship Earth is one of the best STEMM engagement initiatives I have seen in my career. It makes learning about Science fun and has inspired our students.”

Over 60 student experiments will be launched on Friday, 2 July, including mission patch artwork that the school children have made, that will be returned to them as a memento of the historic flight. In addition, the Spaceship Earth team will attempt to achieve the world record for highest altitude paper plane flight.

Dr Patrick Johnson, School of Education at University of Limerick, said: “This project is a unique opportunity for schools to engage in a novel and exciting venture that aims to develop students’ critical thinking skills, creativity and curiosity, with the additional goal of developing positive dispositions amongst those involved toward STEMM subjects.”

As well as experiments, these stratosphere balloons can capture visually stunning pictures of the curvature of Planet Earth with on-board cameras providing an evocative way for people to engage with STEMM and to realise the relationship between STEMM and Art. In addition, it reminds everyone that our unique planet is our spaceship in the universe and that we need to focus all our efforts to avert climate change.

Dr Cornelia Connolly, School of Education at NUI Galway and Lero, explained: “This project offers a unique opportunity not just to research attitudinal responses to STEMM but working directly with the teachers and young people we are introducing and showcasing innovative STEMM projects, encouraging engagement.”

More information can be found at the Spaceship Earth Project website: www.SpaceShipEarth.ie.


Marketing and Communications Office


Featured Stories