Students aim stratosphere-high for eye in the sky challenge

Terence McSwiney College students aim to capture Earth’s curvature with camera-balloon

A Cork school was today hoping to create a little bit of history by boldly going where no Irish school has gone before - sending a helium balloon up to 30km into the stratosphere as part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge.

The eight pupils from Terence McSwiney College in Knocknaheeny on the city's northside, under the guidance of science teacher Lillian Heylin, have been working for the past six weeks on the project, which is hosted by Stanford University and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology.

The team, comprising William O'Mahony, Aisling Walsh, Rebecca Murphy, Stuart Murphy, Josh Crean, Dominic Kelly, Jamie Twomey and Chloe Lingwood, drawn from first year up to transition year, headed for Cahersiveen in Co Kerry earlier to launch the balloon at noon.

“The aim of the challenge is to send a balloon equipped with a small digital camera up into the stratosphere and capture some photographs and the students have done some Trojan work over the past few weeks working out the best way to position the camera,” said Ms Heylin.


“They’ve also put in a small hand warmer to protect both the camera and a GPS device from temperatures which will drop down to -60 degrees,” said Ms Heylin, adding the camera is set up to take photographs at regular intervals through a hole in a Styrofoam box.

Terence McSwiney College will be competing against almost 100 other schools and educational institutions from around the world, with the winner being judged on the basis of the balloon which reaches the greatest altitude and obtains the best photographs of the Earth.

“We’re hoping to get the balloon to between 25km and 30km before it bursts because of the atmospherics and drop in temperature, and of course we’re also hoping to get some really good pictures - getting a shot of the curvature of the Earth would be a real scoop,” she added.

Terence McSwiney College principal Willie McAuliffe paid tribute to Cork City Council, which assisted with funding to enable the school to buy a top quality digital camera to take photographs, and to Met Éireann, which has shared its expertise on sending up space balloons.

"Jim O'Donovan at Cork City Council has been very supportive and Mike Crean of Met Éireann at the Valentia Observatory in Cahersiveen has been a great help - they send up a balloon every day, so they have great experience and [have] also supplied us with helium," he said.

Ms Heylin explained that the Styrofoam box is equipped with a parachute which will activate when the balloon bursts and which the team hopes will ensure the safe return to Earth of the camera and the images it hopefully will capture on its ascent.

“It’s going to take 90 minutes for the balloon to go up and then 60 minutes for it to come back down - one of the advantages of launching in Cahersiveen is that with southwesterly winds, we’re hoping it will blown inland so the students can retrieve it and hopefully we’ll get some great shots.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times