WSU’s Weather Balloon Takes Flight


Members of the WSU HARBOR team watch as the high-altitude weather balloon lifts off from the Duchesne Municipal Airport on July 28.

OGDEN, Utah – A team of Weber State University students and professors are flying high after successfully launching a high-altitude weather balloon on July 28. After a year of test flights and experiments, this was the balloon’s maiden flight.

The latex, helium-filled balloon, called the High Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research, or HARBOR, took off from the Duchesne Municipal Airport at 9:14 a.m. In 2.5 hours it rose approximately 15 miles, where it burst from increased pressure, releasing a parachute that carried a capsule containing a modified digital camera and several other experiments. Nearly 3.5 hours later, the parachute fell safely to the ground near the Ouray Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles east of the original launch site.

The view taken from aboard the balloon platform  as it reaches the edge of outer space.

At 79,056 feet, the sky is black, and the Earth’s curvature can be seen. Photos taken by the digital camera aboard the balloon can be seen at

Like most weather balloons, it gauged air pressure, temperature and other scientific measurements from Earth’s atmosphere, but the WSU balloon had yet another important purpose: promoting space-based learning for future scientists, physicists and engineers.

HARBOR has its roots in a sister program, BOREALIS, which is operated by the Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University. Students and professors from MSU provided guidance and advice throughout the past year as the WSU team prepared to launch HARBOR.

John Armstrong, assistant physics professor and one of the HARBOR flight leads, said balloon programs are popular across the country because they provide a relatively inexpensive way for students to get flight experience.

"Not only do they have to design instrumentation to fit within budgets, they also have to work with each other to put the project together," he explained. "This is exactly what it would be like if they were given a task like the Mars Rover. The team would be much bigger, of course, and the budget much larger, but it’s the same kind of scenario."

Members of the WSU HARBOR team and assistant physics professor John Armstrong (second from right) stand above the landing site of the balloon platform, which floated back to earth on a parachute.

The balloon carried with it a command and telemetry system, which continuously signaled the balloon’s global positioning system through a ham radio transmitter. It also included temperature sensors, a data logging system that tested atmospheric pressure and temperature profiles during the flight, along with the modified digital camera. All of the hardware was designed or altered for high-altitude flight by the team of WSU students, which was made up of physics majors, computer and electronic engineering technology majors and others studying science, math or engineering.

"This has given our students tremendous real-world opportunities, and it will look great on their résumés and applications to graduate school," Armstrong said. "They can say they designed and built a GPS receiver and a ham radio transmitter that radioed the location of a high-altitude balloon. They can say it was put in a box and sent up about 78,000 feet and that it functioned in cold temperatures, low pressure and rough landing conditions. That’s impressive."

WSU junior John Metcalf, a physics major and flight simulation lead for HARBOR, agreed.

"Being a part of this project has been awesome," he said. "It brought a lot of people together from different departments, and it was cool working with everyone. It also gave me the opportunity to present research at WSU’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. I’m not quite sure what I want to do when I graduate, but I do know that this will look great on my résumé."

Computer engineering technology major Luke Jenkins added, "This is a really complex and diverse project. I saw it during the Physics Open House at Weber State and decided it was a great opportunity to apply what I’ve already learned. I realized just how important is it to work with others who have different areas of expertise to get a project launched."

Armstrong, who said he couldn’t have been happier with the first launch, noted the HARBOR project will be ongoing. The next step will be to launch another balloon carrying more WSU experiments, as well as a mini-satellite developed by students at Utah State University. He also hopes to get local school districts and the community involved by continuing to offer balloon demonstrations and activities at WSU’s Ott Planetarium.

"HARBOR is a fantastic way to get 10-, 12-, 14-year olds excited and interested in science and engineering," said Armstrong. "This first launch … this was only the beginning."

HARBOR is funded in part by WSU’s Office of Undergraduate Research; the Department of Physics; the WSU Research, Scholarship and Professional Growth Committee; the Rocky Mountain Space Grant; and private donations.

For more information about the project or to see photos and videos of the balloon system and the recent flight, log on to

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Assistant physics professor John Armstrong (right) looks on as members of the WSU HARBOR team inflate the balloon in preparation for take off on July 28.

Amy Hendricks, office of Media Relations
801-626-6346 •
John Armstrong, assistant physics professor
801-626-6215 ·