A YouTube video highlighting part of the experiment, which features a Hello Kitty doll being launched in a capsule to test the effects of altitude on air pressure and temperature, has garnered about 767,000 views since it launched Jan. 25. The soaring excitement has attracted the attention of media outlets all over the world, including Australia and the Middle East.
“From looking at all the other weather balloon videos on YouTube, I thought a few thousand would watch, but I didn’t expect this many,” said Rojas, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Cornerstone Christian School in Antioch. “It was kind of weird at first to get all this attention from people.”
The balloon ended up traveling 93,625 feet (17 miles) over a span of 90 minutes. Augmenting the allure of the video is the doll Rojas put in the capsule to add a personal touch.
“I think it is popular because it is different and there aren’t many everyday YouTube videos like this,” Rojas said. “I also know there are a lot of Hello Kitty fans out there, so that was a bonus because I love Hello Kitty and a lot of people like Hello Kitty.”
Rojas’ journey to fame started innocently about three months ago while she watched TV with her father, Rod. A commercial depicting three guys releasing a weather balloon into space lay dormant in her imagination until she remembered she was required to do a science project for school.
“She knew from the beginning of our science fair preparation exactly what she wanted to do,” said Rojas’ teacher Annette Cluck. “She dove in and put in a great amount of effort. I’m so proud of her. “
Over the course of about the next three months, Rojas connected a weather balloon to a capsule made of Plexiglas and Styrofoam. She also connected a GPS tracking device and flight computer to the capsule to be able to locate it when it landed, and four cameras to chronicle the journey.
“It’s actually a very simple design,” said Rod, who helped Lauren with only the technical aspects of the project, such as the use of power tools. “It was very easy for Lauren to design and build it.”
Rojas and her father launched the balloon from a parking lot in Livermore after filling it with 200 cubic feet of hydrogen. “I was actually really scared when we were launching it,” Rojas said. “As soon as I saw it go out of sight, I felt like we actually did this.”
Using the onboard GPS and flight computer, Rojas tracked the contraption 47.7 miles away in South San Jose. After searching for several hours, the pair discovered the capsule had landed 50 feet off the ground in a tree at Quicksilver County Park. An arborist was called in to retrieve the capsule and flight computer. Footage of the flight showed the weather balloon popped after expanding to 53 times its original size.
“My favorite part was when I got the balloon. We drove home as fast as we could,” Rojas said. “When we looked at all the footage, it took my breath away.”
The images captured, which included the capsule’s entire journey and the 36 hours it spent in the tree, was condensed by Rojas’ family into the 3½-minute video. The video attracted viewers almost immediately, and its comment section has been flooded with 3,000 messages, most of which ask how to replicate the project.
“I like how it sparked the interest of other kids,” Rod said. “I see it in Lauren’s school classmates as well. They’re very inquisitive about it. They think it’s really neat, so I think it really sparked interest in science in young kids.”
Rojas might be in line for more accolades. Her project was judged Wednesday in the school’s science fair. Regardless of the results, the effort has taken Rojas’ love of science to new heights.
“I want to be an architect when I grow up,” Rojas said. “I want to keep science in my life no matter what.”