Technology in this day and age has progressed leaps and bounds over the years and things that may have once been out of reach of the normal everyday person have become more readily available. For instance something as huge and important as the internet, the key to the vast majority of the world’s social, working and educational life was once solely for scientists to share their findings much faster between each other. So it is not crazy to think that even some of the most advanced technologies could become available to everyone. And that is exactly what the ‘Pi in the Sky project run by Cookstown High School and Holy Trinity College in Cooktown took excellent advantage of!

Looking down on a storm

Looking down on a storm (image credit: Robert Johnston)


Spearheaded by the Project Lead Robert Johnston of Cookstown High school, along with the support of Gerard McStocker from Holy Trinity College and the ‘highly’ experienced High Altitude Balloonist Philip Heron, this leading edge school project has left us gazing into the sky! With the hard work and determination of 14 students from both schools there is the proof that the sky is most definitely within anyone’s reach and it will not cripple your purse either! Using simple and cheap technology they managed to soar above the clouds! So how and why did they do this?

The Sun from the stratosphere just north east of Dublin (Image credit: Robert Johnston)

The Sun from the stratosphere just north east of Dublin (Image credit: Robert Johnston)


A key driving force that plays a big role in this fascinating project is STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Technology).  This is a CCEA initiative aimed at pupils and teachers to help stimulate learning and teaching, as well as encouraging children to make connections between STEM/STEAM subjects and their relevance to the world of working.  The ‘Pi in the Sky’ project had and underlying aims to promote the STEM/STEAM subjects through after school activities, like this one.

The Sun setting just east of Dublin (Image credit: Robert Johnston)

The Sun setting just east of Dublin (Image credit: Robert Johnston)


Their goal was to launch a high altitude balloon carrying a Raspberry Pi high up into Earth’s atmosphere and take their own breath-taking images of Earth and Space as well as record different findings along the way. I know you may have just asked yourself exactly how a delicious baked good could help with recording pictures and data at severely high altitudes but the Raspberry Pi is not what its name suggests. Rather it is a tiny credit card sized computer that has the capability of doing many of the tasks of a standard desktop PC! From creating spreadsheets and using word-processor to even playing high-definition video! And you would think this marvelous little gadget would cost a pretty penny, but at a relatively cheap starting price of roughly £30, it’s quite a cheap but effective asset to projects of this sort! Although this was not a bank breaking project the school children did get help from local businesses as the project was sponsored by iTeach, DANI, Cookstown Council, BOC, JK Coaches and Sinclair Hardware, who obviously are proud to have helped with this fascinating project.

 (Image credit: Robert Johnston)

The limb of the Earth (Image credit: Robert Johnston)


Together the pupils from both schools learned about and reprogramed the nifty Raspberry Pi credit card computers,; they also designed their own internal electronic circuitry for the mission and created projections for the flight as well as measuring balloon neck lift and projected assent rates. With all systems go they just had one final task, getting the clearance from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly the object. Obviously it may not be that simple to launch something high into our atmosphere without causing confusion amongst a common passer-by who may be very confused about what a white dot in the sky might be. With the clearance received they were set to go and on the morning of Saturday 22  March, the students and teachers of project ‘Pi in the Sky’ made their way to the launch site at CDE Global in Cookstown.

 (Image credit: Robert Johnston)

Earth’s shadow at sunrise (Image credit: Robert Johnston)


The project was a massive success with the balloon reaching even higher than they anticipated, reaching the dizzying height of 120 000 ft. which is three times higher than the cruising height of a commercial airliner!  With temperatures falling as low as a chilly -35 ˚C the balloon travelled across Ireland in 24 hours, collecting amazing images of our stunning blue planet as well as other planets, sunrises and cloud formations that was consistently being fed back to the project’s website. After its 24 hours of transmitting its location and images every 6 minutes it fell into the sea over the south coast of Ireland. Unfortunately it has never been recovered but who knows, it may wash up on the shore in the future. But it did its job and sparked such a passion for science and engineering in many people with the live feed on the ‘Pi in the Sky’ project receiving over 1200 new visitors during the 2 days alone!


Venus (Image credit: Robert Johnston)

Sunrise (Image credit: Robert Johnston)


This project did not just have the goal of being fun and simply reach space, it helped the students to learn new and exciting skills that could also inspire them for the future and give more clarity to what they want to be when they reach the working world! The pupils themselves have even expressed how the project really opened their eyes to how detailed and precise the work into programming and planning these types of projects are. So hopefully lots of schools will see the example set by Cookstown High and Holy Trinity and realise the potential to really show the youth of today all the possibilities that lay before them and maybe help with solidifying what they want to do with their future.


(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)



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