It is usually difficult to get teenagers out of bed, but eight Otūmoetai College students will leap out of their slumber this morning to launch a robot into near-space.

Songheon Lee, 17, has built a robot that will expose two Petri dishes to UV light in the stratosphere on board a suborbital helium balloon.

The Petri dishes contain agar nutrient jelly, which is used to foster bacteria growth in scientific experiments. The test is to see, if after the agar has been exposed to the UV light, whether it will still grow bacteria when it returns to Earth.

Songheon, also known as Daniel, is part of a team of eight students from years 10 to 13 taking part in three launches that will catapult three separate balloons into the stratosphere, starting today . The Otūmoetai team is led by science teacher Ceri Blears-Woodcock.


It is part of an international project organised by New Zealand internet company EOL and US-based student science club, Earth to Sky Calculus, headed by United States astrophysicist Dr Tony Philips. Launching the balloons will be a New Zealand first.

Songheon was "shoulder-tapped" by Blears-Woodcock to build the robot through his electronics technology teacher, Deon Wessels.

Songheon named his robot "x", in reference to x representing the "unknown" in algebra.

"Because I don't know how my mechanisms will react and work in [the] extreme conditions up in the stratosphere."

The Petri dishes will be exposed to the unfettered UV radiation between 1500 and 3500 metres above the earth's surface. At 3500m, the robot will close the container, which has a UV-resistant copper lid.

It is controlled by a timer that is programmed based on the rate of ascent of the balloon.

The latex balloon holds about 6.5 cubic litres of helium - the equivalent of 500 helium party balloons - will pop and fall back to the Earth by parachute.

Landing locations are unpredictable and there is a chance the scientific equipment, including Songheon's robot, will land in the Kaimai ranges.

Equipment will be tracked via GPS.


The Earth to Sky Calculus team of six United States students, aged 15 to 22, arrived in New Zealand on Wednesday. The young Americans will teach local students like Songheon and his classmates how to conduct the balloon launches so that the Bay of Plenty can continue with future exploration of the stratosphere.

Otūmoetai College was the first of six schools in the Bay to sign on to be a part of the project.

Co-owner of EOL Terry Coles said the opportunity to host the group and learn from them was one that EOL had to "grab with both hands".

"It's pretty cool, getting kids doing cutting edge stuff, on the edge of space. It will be a first in New Zealand."

Schools taking part:

Mount Maunganui College

Bethlehem College

Otūmoetai College

Tauranga Girls

Tauranga Boys

Toi Ohomai

Launch schedule:

Friday June 22 – Mount Maunganui College and Otūmoetai College

Sunday June 24 – Bethlehem College and Tauranga Girls College

Tuesday June 26 - Tauranga Boys' College