WESLEY CHAPEL — Huddled around a laptop computer, four St. Anthony Catholic School students first gasped, then giggled.
“This is awesome,” raved Hannah Fox, 9, as Steve Cummings, standing in the Nevada desert, held up a ping pong ball encasing one of the six experiments from her and her fourth grade classmates. “Out of 2,000 ping pong balls, they chose ours! Awesome!”
Sunday, just before noon, the group watched a live webcast of a weather balloon launch by SleepBetter.org and JP Aerospace sending nearly 2,000 ping pong balls — called PongSats — and five small pillows roughly 104,000 feet into the atmosphere.
The project studies the effect of the atmosphere on whatever is placed inside the ping pong balls. Schools from all over the country submitted ping pong balls.
“It’s really neat to hear them talk about it and super exciting to watch the kids and their reactions to it,” said Jennifer Bjornsen, who hosted the watch party and whose daughter, Karley, attends the San Antonio school. “That’s the best part.”
In all, 19 kids from Connie Fernandez’s fourth grade class at the San Antonio school participated in the experiments.
The group stuffed six ping pong balls with items ranging from marshmallows to popcorn to a pencil eraser and penny. The goal is to find out what the change in atmosphere and altitude would do to the objects. “When we did this, we had groups and everybody had fun in it and it was exciting,” Fox said.
John Powell, founder of JP Aerospace, and Cummings were in Nevada’s Buena Vista Valley — a section dubbed Area Trombone — to help chronicle the launch for the webcast.
At one point, as the pair chatted prior to launch, a PongSat was held up to the camera. It was one labored over at St. Anthony.
“I was really glad to do it because all my friends were working together,” Cadence Clement said. “And we really had a fun time.”
Each launch vehicle is equipped with a GPS system, a beacon that lasts for two weeks, as well as an uplink that will send an email with the exact landing coordinates.
The ping pong balls will be located and retrieved within the next several days and returned to the students.
“It makes me feel excited for them that they’re so excited about science, because science can be so much fun,” Fernandez said. “There is a lot of work involved, but it can be so much fun.”
Added Jenna Nicolette: “It was fun when he got to decorate the (ping pong ball) and fill it up with experiments.”
Once the PongSats have been collected, they will be returned to the schools with a certificate of completion, a DVD of the launch, flight statistic sheet, and each student will receive a mission patch.
More than 8,000 PongSats have been launched by JP Aerospace since March 2002.