Students, scientists to have a blast

Movement of shock waves to be traced after fireworks go off

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
March 15, 2004

Middle school teacher Scott Meeker, left, and pilot Tim Taylor will be in the air Monday when fireworks go off as part of an experiment to detect shock-wave movement. Another explosion will go off on Wednesday.
Peter Brunson, USU

Science and education will be a blast this evening and Wednesday — literally.

When fireworks bangs go off then, teachers and volunteers hope Cache Valley middle school students will become excited about science. Meanwhile, researchers hope the blasts will give new insight into waves moving through the upper atmosphere.

The bangs are the explosions of fireworks slated to be launched into the air. The first will ignite about 6 p.m. today. Students throughout Cache Valley will be listening for the explosion.

But when will they hear it? That's the question at the heart of the experiment.

The effort is the Wellsville Wave Project, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Space Grant Consortium. Supporting it are volunteers in fields as diverse as glider piloting, atmospheric science, engineering and ham radio.

In addition to involving students, the experiment may answer questions about high-speed winds flowing over an extremely steep mountain range in the vicinity, the Wellsville Mountains.

Atmospheric scientists at Utah State University, Logan, would like to discover if the winds "can resonate with the air mass in Cache Valley and create waves that rise nearly straight up," said Gil Moore, a project backer and former USU professor.

If so, the blast could create atmospheric gravity waves that circle the Earth at an altitude of 60 miles, he said.

The National Weather Service is prepared to launch instrument-carrying balloons from Salt Lake City; Elko, Nev., and Boise to determine the motion of the air mass upwind of the Wellsville Mountains, Moore told the Deseret Morning News in an e-mail. Meanwhile, a pilot and a middle school teacher will be flying above the mountains to measure the strength and direction of winds.

Weather stations in Cache Valley will also check the pattern of winds on the valley floor, in foothills, and on top of Mount Logan, Moore said.

"Then at 6 p.m. on Monday . . . a six-inch firework 'salute' will be launched to create a shock wave above the west side of the valley." The round is to go off 400 feet above ground, and the shock wave will expand outward and upward.

Middle school students, their teachers, scientists and amateur radio operators are to check the exact time when the sound reaches them in their homes. Timing the wave's arrival will help researchers define the shape of the wave.

Scientists will use lidar and radar equipment as well as sophisticated cameras.

"The scientists hope to be able to detect the firework pulse riding on the mountain wave as it climbs out of the valley toward the mesosphere," Moore said.

Students will watch a highly accurate clock on the Internet and log in the time that they heard the boom, as well as their location.

Measurements will be recorded on the Web at

"The teacher in the glider will provide another shock wave arrival time data point at an altitude of 14,500 feet."

Moore, retired from USU and a resident of Monument, Colo., said the first blast will use about a quarter-pound of fireworks. The experiment is to be repeated on Wednesday with about 20 pounds.

The teacher in the glider is to be Scott Meeker, who teaches seventh-grade science at Spring Creek Middle School, Providence, Cache County. On Thursday, he and other middle school teachers working on the project gathered at the Logan airport, where they got a look at the small plane.

Teachers put their names in a hat and Meeker's was drawn.

The craft will be flown by Tim Taylor, associate professor in the USU Biological and Irrigation Engineering Department and president of the local glider association.

Asked if he was nervous about being in the air when a blast goes off, Meeker joked, "I hadn't really thought about that — now I'm nervous."

Actually, he said, he had talked with his wife about getting a pilot's license and thinks a glider license would be enjoyable.

"I think it's really cool," he said of the experiment.

"The whole purpose of this thing is to make science more exciting and less intimidating so that young people will continue on in science," said John Vanderford, USU space grant outreach coordinator.

Backers hope the experiment will keep students in middle school excited about science. The United States does not have enough physicists, engineers and others in scientific fields, he said.

"We don't want everybody to become a scientist," Vanderford said, "but we want just a few more."

© 2004 Deseret News Publishing Company