GAINESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) – Jackson County Middle School was recently recognized for its summer STEM program, or science, technology, engineering and math. Earlier this week, students launched their own high-altitude weather balloon.

Weather balloon just after launch over Gainesboro

Jackson County eighth grade teacher Michael Vigeant and his students have done this for the last five years.

“I just wanted to do something fun, something that not everyone else is doing,” Vigeant explained. “We’re really the only school in Tennessee that does this regularly. We launch our balloons with lots of tracking devices on it, but the main one is the radio tracker that tells us how fast it’s going and how high it’s going.”

Weather balloon in the stratosphere

Their balloon flew to a height of 103,000 feet, or about 19 miles high. And that put it in the stratosphere, the layer above where our weather takes place. The cameras aboard the apparatus showed the amazing view from there, where the sky is black instead of blue, and you can see the clouds below. Eventually, the device parachuted back to earth. In years gone by, the balloon has traveled as far away as Roanoke, Virginia. But this year, it didn’t go far, and that was a weather lesson in itself.

“It didn’t really go that far because the upper atmosphere was really slow,” Vigeant said. “The upper winds were really slow. So, it just went from Gainesboro to between Monterey and Sparta which is about 40 miles, maybe.”

And that’s because the big ridge of high pressure that brought us the warm temperatures this week contains very light winds.

“This launch was kind of unusual because it never went faster than 20 mph,” Vigeant explained. “The last one that we lost last year, it hit a jet stream and was going 130 mph.”

These are the kinds of lessons the students are learning.

In 2024, they plan to bring their balloon and its cameras north to live stream the next Great American Eclipse of the sun from 100,000 feet.