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For N.J. middle school kids, weather balloon launch was a success — thanks to the Riverhead PD

The Riverhead Police Department’s dive and rescue team helped recover a high-altitude weather balloon that was launched from a New Jersey school and landed 105 miles away in Long Island Sound, two miles off Calverton.

The balloon was released around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 5, by the Near-Space Team at Lincoln School in Garwood, N.J. The team of fifth- to seventh-graders had worked with math and science teacher Denise Cafiero for several months to learn about high-altitude balloon launches and design experiments for the GPS-tracked 1200g balloon’s trip into the upper stratosphere. 

At one point, GPS stopped working for three hours because the balloon had traveled too high. GPS coordinates later showed that it had landed off course in Long Island Sound due to weather conditions, 

“We were so happy when the balloon showed up on our tracker again,” Ms. Cafiero said. “It had traveled a lot farther than we expected — we were expecting it to land around Commack, over land.”

A chase team from the school traveled to Long Island to locate the balloon. Ms. Cafiero pursued the balloon with her tracker by car, ending up at a beach near Edwards Ave in Calverton.

“I was ready to dive into the water and go get it myself,” she said, “I was so excited.” 

When she realized from the coordinates that the balloon was too far out for her to retrieve on her own, Ms. Cafiero asked some locals near the beach for help. They encouraged her to reach out to the Riverhead Police Department for assistance.

Conveniently, the department’s dive and rescue team just happened to have training in the Sound planned for last Thursday morning. After searching two areas where GPS coordinates indicated the balloon might be found, Ms. Cafiero said, they found it wrapped around a rock and were able to recover it.

“The stars kind of lined up for them on everything,” said Lt. Thomas Lessard, one of the officers involved in the recovery. “It was really nice to be able to help them. I think they put a lot of time and effort into it and I think it probably would’ve been lost, probably would have ended up in Connecticut, and the kids never would have seen the end of the project.”

Ms. Cafiero was able to bring the balloon — which measured 12 feet across and contained a GoPro camera, Spot GPS tracker, science experiments and a flight computer — back to the students at Lincoln School last Friday. The experiments they’d created for its voyage included Project Peeps, to explore what happens when Peeps are exposed to near-space conditions, and Operation Bubble Wrap, meant to determine if the pressure of a near-space flight will cause bubble wrap to pop.

“I think the launch and everything about it was amazing,” said Alyssa, an eighth-grader at Lincoln School. “The idea of it is just really cool. I think this was one of the best things the school has done.”

Ms. Cafiero started the Near-Space Team at Lincoln School after she was chosen last June to attend the 2017 Honeywell Educators Space Academy, a program focused on training educators in science, space exploration and leadership development. The team encourages students to get involved with science, technology, engineering and math.

“We use the motto T.E.A.M. a lot at Lincoln School — Together everyone can achieve more. And I think that the Riverhead Police Department encompassed that in every way and really went above and beyond with their help,” Ms. Cafiero said. “We are extremely grateful.”

Photo caption: The dive and rescue team helped recover the high-altitude weather balloon. (Riverhead police courtesy photo)