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SLU Students Help NASA Ozone Study Soar Over Saint Louis

If you happen to be near the Saint Louis Science Center planetarium at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, look up. You might see a weather balloon.

Students at Saint Louis University are launching them as part of a study sponsored by the U.S. space agency NASA.

The mission aims to improve our understanding of air pollution and global climate.

A small group of Saint Louis University students huddle around a laptop and beeping radio receiver set up in front of the Saint Louis Science Center planetarium in Forest Park. They’re getting ready to participate in a NASA mission to measure ozone.

A radio receiver captures the ozone data as audible beeps.

Those beeps are the sound of data.

Inside a small Styrofoam box are a GPS, and two little instruments that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure — and ozone. A transmitter in the box broadcasts the data to a 6-foot-tall antenna connected to that beeping radio receiver. From there, an old-school modem translates the audio signal into ones and zeroes that the laptop converts into air quality measurements.

Credit Art Chimes
A large antenna captures the ozone and weather data and sends them to a radio receiver. In the background, SLU students Patrick Walsh (left) and Jackie Ringhausen (seated), and Valparaiso student Mark Spychala (right) prepare the balloon for launch.

Once the students have checked that all the equipment is working, the next step is to attach the Styrofoam box with its instruments to a weather balloon that will carry everything up into the atmosphere. But first, they need to fill the balloon with helium.

A lot of helium. Fully blown up, the balloon will be about 8 to 10 feet in diameter. The goal is to give it enough lift to carry it, and its cargo, up about 100,000 feet into the stratosphere. That’s around three times as high as commercial airplanes fly.

“This is Gary Morris with the Saint Louis University weather balloon launch team at the St. Louis planetarium," Valparaiso University professor Gary Morris says as he checks in with the FAA. "We’re five minutes from a weather balloon launch.”

Morris is the lead trainer for the ozone balloon project. St. Louis is one of seven sites involved in the nationwide study.

Morris says NASA wants to get more data on ozone because of the important roles it plays in our atmosphere — both good and bad.

High up in the stratosphere, the ozone layer absorbs sunlight and keeps harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the earth.

But down near the ground, emissions from sources like petrochemical plants and cars can form ozone pollution and smog, which can exacerbate respiratory problems like asthma.

Credit Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio
Along with harming human health, ground-level ozone can also cause damage to plants, like the black spots on this leaf at an ozone demonstration garden near the Saint Louis Science Center planetarium.

“And it’s especially difficult on children who are still developing,” Morris said. “So children who grow up in areas that are chronically exposed to high levels of ozone have more frequent rates of asthma.”

Jack Fishman worked for NASA for more than 30 years, studying air pollution and atmospheric chemistry. Now he’s at Saint Louis University, where he’s leading their ozone study.

Fishman says like carbon dioxide, ozone contributes to the greenhouse effect — both directly, and by forming tiny particles known as aerosols.

“So this project is trying to understand the complexity of the chemistry and the clouds and other processes, meteorological processes, that impact local meteorology, which in turn, form the big picture of climate…and in turn, climate change,” Fishman said.

(Video: Art Chimes and Véronique LaCapra)

Back at the Saint Louis Science Center, it’s launch time. Valparaiso University senior Mark Spychala leads the countdown: “OK, we’re all good! Ready? Five, four, three, two, one, lift-off! Alright!”

Credit Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio
SLU senior Jackie Ringhausen writes instructions on the Styrofoam box that houses the ozone and weather instruments. The weather balloons have been landing east of Saint Louis in Illinois. If you find one, you can call the number on the box to return it and earn a $30 reward.

The balloon and its payload swoop upwards. Saint Louis University senior William Iwasko is one of four undergrads on the launch team.

“As a kid I always wanted to work for NASA,” Iwasko said.

But Iwasko says the project isn’t just about collecting data. He says launching the weather balloons in front of the planetarium gives kids who come by a chance to see science in action.

“And it helps to build their excitement for science and especially meteorology,” Iwasko said. “So we hope we’re developing little meteorologists here.”

Seven-year-old Zack Crawford says when he grows up, he wants to be a fireman. But the balloon launch definitely made an impression.

“That was amazing! It’s so high that I can’t even see it,” Crawford said.

There’s still time for you to see one of those weather balloons. SLU will be launching them every day except for Sundays in August, and on even numbered days through the end of September.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience