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SCV's cosmic dust collectors

West Ranch High students put their all into an ambitious experiment

Posted: May 20, 2014 10:20 p.m.
Updated: May 20, 2014 10:20 p.m.

West Ranch High students test the weight-bearing capacity of their balloon before launching at West Ranch High School on Friday. A group of astronomy students put in an enormous amount of time and energy into trying to collect cosmic dust left behind by comets.

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West Ranch High School astronomy teacher Christine Hirst is directing some of her approximately 90 students as they scatter across two blue tarps in the school’s amphitheater, working to put the final touches on a weather balloon tethered to a cosmic-dust collector and two Styrofoam boxes.

Hirst then leads spectators in a final countdown to the helium-filled balloon’s release.

At zero, the balloon and its payload lurch into a 100,000-foot ascent toward potentially accomplishing what no other high school and no entity other than NASA has accomplished: the collection of cosmic dust left behind by comets — in this case from the Lyrid Meteor Shower.

And although Hirst tells the students where to be on launch day, the project has been primarily student-led.

“It’s (been) entirely kids,” said Hirst, of the project. “I get to sit back and watch their creative juices flow.”

Seniors Tim Norris, Dan Tikhomirov, and Chance MacKinney constitute what Hirst calls the class’ core cosmic-dust collectors.

The trio visited Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, along with classmates, on March 3. It was there, the students saw aerogel (a porous material they’d later use in trying to collect the cosmic dust) on display and became enamored with it, said Hirst.

The field trip inspired an intense pursuit of the project they’d been contemplating to some extent since the fall semester.

Over the next couple months, the group spent countless hours doing everything from researching, to designing the collection device, to writing computer code.

“They were in (my classroom) eight hours (a day),” Hirst said, “Throughout school, after school, every break. (The project) is their life.”

But dedicated as they were, they couldn’t do it alone.

“Kids at other high schools hope to do this kind of experiment,” Norris said, ”We were fortunate enough to get the money for it.”

Hirst applied for a Toshiba America Foundation grant in February, a task that took around 72 hours to complete, she says. The fruit of her labor: an $11,000 grant, which went towards the pricey equipment used in the launch and recovery of the project.

The trio also received help from Joe Klocko, director of the Centers for Applied Competitive Technologies at College of the Canyons, who 3D-printed, out of his own budget, the computer-aided design file of the collector the students had created.

Basically, he brought their orb-shaped design to life.

“This was a group effort,” Tikhomirov said, “We couldn’t have done it without the rest of the class (as well).”

Most of Hirst’s class began focusing on a different aspect of the project in May. They designed experiments to put inside the high-density Styrofoam boxes to go up with the balloon, including cupcakes (to see if taste would change at a high altitude) and a Bell pepper (to see if it would change colors).

Many times Norris and the others didn’t think the dust-collector portion of the project would come together, in fact, it almost didn’t.

Coding for the collector wasn’t finished until 20 minutes before the launch ceremony, and the mechanism to open it was completed even closer to deadline.

After the launch, the trio said they hoped the collector would open at 70,000 feet, gather the cosmic dust in the aerogel inside, and close again at around 114,000 feet to protect the sample from contamination.

“Oh please, oh please open,” Norris begged the collector. “(And) please, oh please close and don’t open again.”

At max height the balloon was to pop, a parachute to open and the collector and boxes to fall back to earth.

The class’s reconnaissance team had left school before the balloon launch to stalk, with GPS tracking, their treasure, which eventually landed in a residential backyard in Pasadena.

They recovered the goods around 10 p.m.

Unfortunately for Hirst’s class, the collector didn’t work, and their hopes of cosmic dust were dashed.  

But the core group and their tireless teacher aren’t deterred. They already have plans to redo the experiment in six months in addition to the research papers and presentations the whole class will soon put together.

“For it to have worked the first time would’ve been miraculous,” Hirst said.  

And really, Hirst had already declared the project a success less than an hour after launch last Friday night.

Most of the spectators had left, but the seventh-year West Ranch teacher had one final word for those students remaining.

“We pulled this off,” Hirst told the students.

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