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Students vie in balloon competition

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People hold on to the balloon wearing gloves while it fills with helium on Monday for an Earth Day balloon launch at Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro.

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Rocky Mount Telegram

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

TARBORO — A group of students set their sights high on Earth Day, launching balloons with scientific payloads into near space.

Students from Edgecombe Community College, Nash Community College and Hobgood Academy launched three balloons on Monday from the Tarboro campus of Edgecombe Community College in the spirit of scientific inquiry.

The two community colleges are participating in this year’s High Altitude Ballooning Competition, an annual event developed and sponsored by the High Altitude Ballooning Competition. As part of its outreach efforts that are part of the grant funding, Edgecombe Community College works with students at Hobgood Academy, a private school that serves students in Edgecombe, Halifax and Martin counties, and invited the school to the balloon launch as well.

Seven community colleges in North Carolina are involved in the High Altitude Ballooning Competition and only three of them — Nash, Edgecombe and Pitt community colleges — are in the eastern part of the state. The students involved in the competition usually launch their balloons together from a location in the western part of the state. Each balloon carries a payload designed to accumulate knowledge about the effect of near space on different experiments.

“Since balloons tend to travel south and east, it is usually better to launch them from farther west,” said Jobi Cook, associate director of the N.C. Space Grant program. “Otherwise, there is a possibility the balloons can land in the ocean.”

This year’s competition was supposed to take place earlier this month in Lenoir as part of the Gravity Games, but bad weather forced the cancellation of that balloon launch. Instead, the seven competing teams are holding their own launches.

Teams traveled in vehicles on Monday to follow their balloons, tracking them by GPS. When they locate the balloons where they land, which sometimes can take more than a day, they will retrieve the information and be judged by a number of factors including highest altitude and best photos taken from the balloons.

Rebecca Stamlio-Ehret, who teaches physics and astronomy at Edgecombe Community College, is an old hand at launching balloons as this is the fourth year ECC’s team, critECCly Stable, has participated in the event. But she invited Nash Community College to join her team for this year’s launch since this is the first time NCC has participated in the event.

“I remember the first time we participated and how scary that was and we had the chance to see other balloons launch first,” Stamilio-Ehret said. “Even though we are competing against Nash Community College, I felt it would be good to offer them the chance to launch their balloon with us since this is their first time.”

Shilo Lawrence, who teaches math and engineering at NCC and is the coordinator of the college’s Associate in Engineering program, leads NCC’s team called The Nashtronauts. 

“We are all excited to be finally launching the balloon,” Lawrence said. “I think one of the most exciting parts for the students is going on the adventure of trying to find it. I do hope we are able to locate it.”

NCC student Noah Tippett said participating on the Nashtronaut team has been a rewarding experience.

“This has been fun,” Tippett said. “And it is good hands-on engineering experience.”

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