NUI Galway leads balloon mission to edge of space

The final frontier for engaging school children with STEMM learning
Pupils at Scoil Mhuire, Oranmore, Galway

30 June 2021

Researchers at NUI Galway are leading a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Discover programme team to deliver school children’s projects high into the stratosphere to examine the effects of near space on the experiments.

For the new project, entitled Spaceship Earth, NUI Galway is partnering with University of Limerick, Met Éireann and Lero, the SFI Research Centre for Software,

Two space themed workshops have already been delivered 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  involves launching five high altitude weather balloons from Met Éireann’s observatory in Valentia in Co. Kerry on 2 July. The researchers expect these will reach more than 30km 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 Prof 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.”

“Met Éireann has a long history of launching weather balloons at Valentia Observatory, with the first launched in the early 1940s,” said Charles Gillman, chief operations officer at Met Éireann’s Valentia Observatory. “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.”

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.

Over 60 student experiments will be launched on 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.

“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,” said Dr Patrick Johnson, school of education at University of Limerick.

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.

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