In April of 2020, prior to the construction phase of Alderman Library renovation, the Library’s senior leadership needed to decide what to do with 2 tanks of helium gas that Scholars’ Lab GIS specialists have used to send up a weather balloon for aerial photography, 3D scanning, and to collect geospatial data where the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits drones. When it was determined that the tanks could not be stored in Clemons Library, University Librarian John Unsworth suggested donating the helium to a University department that had a use for it. Ricky Patterson, the Library’s Associate Director for Campus Partnerships in the Social, Natural, Engineering Sciences, was asked if he knew of a likely recipient.
After some checking, Patterson found a taker: the Astronomy Department appreciated the offer of a costly element which it can use in a couple of ways — to test for leaks in vacuum containers that keep scientific imagers cold enough to gather data, or for an undergrad project to send a weather balloon carrying a telescope high enough in the atmosphere to allow imaging in the far infrared part of the spectrum.
In a 2016 test for the telescope project, students from Astronomy and Physics designed a payload that would report altitude and position through an amateur radio network and take pictures with a simple GoPro camera and another camera attached to a Raspberry Pi flight computer. The students 3D printed a light weight gondola to house the small array of cameras and sensors and transported it with the helium cylinders to the parking lot of South Plains Presbyterian Church near Keswick where they launched the balloon (see the time-lapse video of the launch).
The balloon entered the stratosphere near the Ragged Mountains and, wandering in circles, reported its altitude, position, and temperature every thirty seconds. The balloon burst as planned a little above 111,000 feet and began its descent, having completed its mission. Perhaps the next balloon to ascend will be with the support of the Library.