SUNY science experiment recovered by Cortland County hiker

CUYLER, N.Y. – Damion Graves was hiking along Cuyler-Lincklaen Road last week when he spotted a balloon hanging from a tree.

"My friend and I went for a walk in the woods because we were bored," said Graves, who found the package in a swampy area.

The balloon, he later discovered, was created in an engineering class by a group of students at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse as part of their participation in the Global Space Balloon Challenge.

The balloons are designed to gather data on air quality and temperature at a lower cost than satellite technology.

Attached to the students' balloon was a camera safely enclosed in homemade fiberglass housing, along with a payload of information-gathering electronics.

According to the team’s website, the students of SUNY ESF participated in this challenge with one goal in mind: making high altitude balloons even more capable platforms for scientific discovery.

The launch went off without a hitch, but the team did not anticipate losing their balloon during the competition.

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The balloon launched from the SUNY ESF Quad in Syracuse on April 29 (Courtesy of SUNY ESF).

More than a month later, Graves found the balloon hanging in a tree.

Seeing a SUNY ESF sticker attached to the fiberglass, Graves contacted Dr. Giorgos Mountrakis, an associate professor in the department of environmental resources engineering whose class launched the balloon from the ESF Quad on April 29.

“It was like seeing an old friend come back,” Mountrakis said.

Mountrakis said the balloon landed in an area that prevented radio signals from reaching the team of students. Eventually, the radio's batteries died, and the only chance of gathering the data from the balloon was that someone would find it.

The balloon collected various videos and still photos during its two and a half hour time in space. Mountrakis estimates the balloon reached 110,000 feet in the air before it popped.

Despite the lack of flight time, Mountrakis believes they recorded a lot of useful data.

“We were able to get some really nice videos and images of the curvature of the earth,” Mountrakis said. “We will study the data in future semesters to see how much larger the balloon got at high altitude so we can study atmospheric pressure and the stress the balloon goes through.”

Mark Bailey, a teaching assistant for the class, said the balloon’s month-long disappearance was disappointing for everyone involved.

“We did the launch the last day of classes and then we just never found the stuff,” Bailey said. “Now everybody is super pumped and just happy that we didn’t ruin ‘ESF Goes to Space’ for future generations.”

Mountrakis surprised his students when he sent them a final email to those who worked on the balloon during the spring semester.

He did not tell them the balloon had been found; instead, he attached an image taken after the balloon was launched.

“I gave them an opportunity to do a little creative thinking and figure it out for themselves,” Mountrakis said.