By John Toole
JagSat, Windham High School’s high altitude weather balloon, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean a couple of hours after launch last week.
Maine lobsterman Ed Foye, checking traps with his helper the next day off the Isles of Shoals, noticed JagSat.
“To be honest with you, it looked like a person with a parachute who didn’t make it,” he said.
They retrieved the weather balloon and, as instructed by a message attached to it, placed a call to Windham High physics teacher Patrick Kaplo.
“It explained what it was and said on it that it was nothing harmful,” Foye said.
“This was a classic phone call,” Kaplo said, wishing now he had recorded the conversation.
He could see on his phone that the call originated in Maine.
“He’s got this great Maine accent,” Kaplo said. “He said, ‘I’m a lobsterman from Kittery.’’’
The call from Foye came as a relief to Kaplo and the 15 students who spent the past few months planning to put JagSat, or Jaguar Satellite, into the sky.
The probe, weighing about 6 pounds, included a capsule with on-board GPS and cameras.
JagSat had climbed an estimated 62,000 feet on June 9, before coming down to Earth.
It took pictures from a point-and-click camera the mission team purchased for about $60 from Wal-Mart.
The students had launched JagSat in Keene after flight modeling suggested an ocean landing if it went up in Windham.
They wanted JagSat to come down on land instead to get that camera back and hoped that would happen somewhere east of Manchester.
“It was really cool,” Kaplo said, “not just that it came back, but that it had these great images from the edge of space.”
This hands-on experience with science and engineering is what the students said they coveted when they signed on for the project.
“It was student run,” said junior Jess Thibeault, 17. “We had the potential to fail and to succeed as well.”
This is not something students get a chance to do every day.
“We were sending (something) into space,” said junior Max Del Rio, 17.
JagSat, back in Kaplo’s classroom at the high school this week, resembles the top of NASA’s Apollo rocket that flew astronauts to the moon. It displays the names of the students who participated.
Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from the edge of space last year inspired Kaplo, who put out a call for students to participate in this project.
He saw it as a chance to get them excited and apply nontraditional academic expertise outside the classroom.
“This is what we want when we talk about STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) and project-based research,” he said.
Max and Jess, who are both considering careers as engineers, estimated students spent several hours a week on the project during the past few months.
They did this in addition to their regular studies and activities such as sports, theater and student council.
“We would come in when we could,” Jess said.
Jess worked with one team that worked on mechanical aspects of the mission. Max worked with another concentrating on electrical issues.
The mission wasn’t perfect.
Max recalled that 12 minutes into the flight the GPS appeared to fail.
“Then it kind of regained it by itself,” he said.
“We think it was a loose connection,” Jess said.
Kaplo asked visitors last week if they had heard of the worldwide helium shortage. They had not, but the mission team learned. It accounted for about 20 percent of their project cost.
“We had a budget,” Kaplo said. “We did this for around $1,000.”
Kaplo said school district officials were supportive of the project. He said Spencer Webb, president of Windham-based AntennaSys Inc., donated time and materials to the project.
Webb said the project will serve students well.
Students who get involved with technology interests usually don’t get this kind of expereince until after they get out of college, he said.
The Windham students made something practical, executed a plan and accomplished this before they left high school, Webb said.
“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “These kids know how to make something.”
That the students experienced both mission success and failure matters.
“The failure may be more important than the success,” Webb said.
Because they encountered problems during the mission means they will think about how to anticipate and overcome them next time, he said.
This won’t be the last time Windham High pursues this project.
Max and Jess emphasized the fun they had and said they are ready to work on a JagSat II next school year.
So is Kaplo, although he will be hoping for a landing next time on dry land.
He’s not sure exactly where Foye kept that balloon — maybe with bait, he speculated — but the odor was disagreeable.
“This thing just reeked,” he said. “My car for a week has smelled very badly.”
Turns out he’s right about the bait.
“I feel badly,” Foye said. “My helper had put it in a barrel that had bait in it during the day.”