Space enthusiasts from a Croydon school are celebrating after becoming the first UK school group to successfully launch and retrieve two experimental high-altitude weather balloons that reached the edge of space.

The 10 to 16 year-old pupils from Croydon High School for Girls Astrogazers Club launched two meteorological balloons from the University of Bath campus last month, with both reaching an altitude of more than 32,000 metres – well into Earth’s stratosphere.

The two ‘Mission Aspiration’ weather balloons, one named after world-leading astrophysicist and former Dean of Science at Bath, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, and the other after the UK’s first astronaut Helen Sharman, contained complementary equipment including cameras, data loggers, GPS trackers and experiments that allowed the pupils to carry out tests to understand how different materials respond to the atmospheric conditions.

They are continuing to conduct experiments on the materials and will publish their findings soon. Similar to those used by organisations like the Met Office, the balloons measure a few metres across.

The data logger recorded its lowest temperature of -43.2°C when it reached an altitude of 15,000 m, while the on-board cameras captured breath-taking views of the edge of space.

Arabi Karteepan, Head of Physics at Croydon High School for Girls, led the balloon project teaching the pupils skills ranging from project management to atmospheric physics.

Silver charm mementos crafted from individual ivy leaves and which the group will now keep, also made the journey on board the Bell-Burnell payload.

Second attempt successful

The flights were the second attempt the Astrogazers club made at reaching the edge of space. A previous launch in late June was scuppered by strong gusts of wind that caused a friction burn between the release cord and the parachute cord. 

Undeterred, the students worked over their summer holidays to prepare for a second launch with the two ‘generation 2’ payloads.

On 12 September, both balloons were successfully launched, tracked and recovered from South Oxfordshire after flights of more than two hours, all planned and organised by the club members. The Bell-Burnell payload reached the higher altitude on its 140-minute flight, rising to 32,380 metres. The Sharman payload narrowly avoided a watery landing after coming close to setting down in the River Thames. 

Professor Cathryn Mitchell and Dr Robert Watson, experts in space and atmospheric physics based at the University of Bath, helped the group get ready for the launch and worked to gain approval from the Civil Aviation Authority.

Prof Mitchell, Royal Society Industry Fellow working with Spirent Communications, said: “I have great admiration for the Astrogazers – their remarkable skills, planning and group organisation are what is needed for a full space mission. Every detail was planned out.”

Dr Robert Watson added: “This shows that everyone can get involved and if they are willing to work hard the reward is being part of a big success. They should be very proud of what they achieved.”

Physics club soars

Mrs Karteepan started the Astrogazers club in 2021 to encourage Croydon High School for Girls pupils to pursue their interest in physics, engineering, and space related careers. She said: “I am absolutely delighted that Astrogazers has become the first girls' school STEM club to achieve two successful weather balloon launches to reach the edge of space. They were so happy to see their hard work pay off, and it’s especially pleasing that passion for physics and science is higher than ever and the club is now expanding with new members expressing interest in STEM subjects.

“The effect of the successful launches has rippled through the school community and the Girls’ Day School Trust - the response has been nothing short of amazing. It is fantastic that Astrogazers is now oversubscribed with a growing waiting list.”

Researchers and technicians in Bath’s Departments of Physics and Electronic & Electrical Engineering, Clare Cambridge, Siva Sivaraya, Linden Weyer-Brown and Gavin Dingley assisted with the launches, which was also supported by the University of Bath Sports Training Village.

The Astrogazers recently completed a follow-up project, Mission Ivy Satellite, creating their own DIY satellite ground station to obtain weather satellite images. The club is also embarking on further missions - Mission Innovation aims to launch a model rocket, while Mission Pegasus will see the club deploy a satellite into low earth orbit.