This photo was taken from a high altitude balloon constructed and launched in June by three Pennsylvania middle school girls. The balloon payload, including camera and other data measuring devices, was found Sunday in York County, Pa., near the Harford County border.
This photo was taken from a high altitude balloon constructed and launched in June by three Pennsylvania middle school girls. The balloon payload, including camera and other data measuring devices, was found Sunday in York County, Pa., near the Harford County border. (Courtesy Steve DiNardo / Provided photo)

Steve DiNardo says his daughter and her two friends never gave up hope they would find a data pack from the high altitude balloon the three girls launched from south central Pennsylvania in June and which they believed came down along the Mason-Dixon Line in either Harford County or neighboring York County, Pa.

Through the summer and early fall, they received reports from residents of possible sightings of the red and blue parachute that brought the molded plastic box – which looks like a small foam cooler – to earth after the balloon burst more than 110,000 feet up.


Finally, early Sunday afternoon, their faith was rewarded when the parachute, with the data pack intact, was found in a thicket off Buckwheat Road in Fawn Grove Township.

"This is quite a relief," DiNardo said in a phone interview Monday morning. "Ironically, this was in the area we originally had projected with GPS coordinates where we thought it might be."

Wanted: STEM balloon data pack believed to be along Harford and York counties line near Fawn Grove

A trio of Pennsylvania middle school girls is asking for local residents to help them recover a data pack from a STEM balloon launched in June for a school project that they believe landed somewhere along the Mason-Dixon line in either York or Harford counties.

On June 19, DiNardo's daughter, Abby, and friends Julia Durian and Abigail Kanes launched their balloon near Ephrata, Pa. Abby and Julia are eighth grade students at Strath Haven Middle School in Wallingford, Pa.; Abigail is an eighth-grader at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. The girls live in Swarthmore, Pa.

The helium filled balloon was followed by radio telemetry to an altitude of 110,500 feet where it burst and the data pack descended under the parachute – whose red and blue colors are those of the University of Pennsylvania, where Steve DiNardo is a professor of cell and developmental biology at the university's Perleman School of Medicine.

The girls followed the descent to 2,500 feet, where they lost contact. The last position taken was in the vicinity of McDermott and Buckwheat roads in York County, just east of Fawn Grove Village and within a mile or less of the border with Harford County.

DiNardo said they had hiked through the woods off Buckwheat twice last summer without success. At that point they decided to wait until the fall when leaves were off the trees and farm fields were harvested. He and a friend also flew over the area in August.

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Originally, the group planned to search in November but was cautioned by residents to beware of hunters with the season in full swing, and so the search was pushed back until Sunday. The delay may have contributed to the ultimate success of the search mission.

On Sunday, another parent climbed a tree stand erected by hunters and saw something red in a thicket along the wood line – an area that DiNardo said had been too overgrown with brambles to walk through last summer. He then guided the rest of them toward the area.

"It turned out to be a plant – a false alarm," he said of the sighting from the tree stand, "but we were able to walk through there because we think hunters had packed down some of the brambles and cut a few trails."

Nearby, "deep in the brambles," as DiNardo put it, they saw the red and blue parachute, a reflector and the much sought molded plastic foam data pack lying on the ground.

And they celebrated, thanking nearby residents, and hanging out a little while before heading back to their homes in Swarthmore, where more wonders awaited.

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"These neighbors along Buckwheat Road were incredibly generous and helpful, kind and welcoming," DiNardo said. "We were able to chat with several of them [Sunday].

DiNardo gave a special shout out to Dawn Claiborne, a Buckwheat Road resident who contacted The Aegis after a story about the missing balloon was published in the summer and offered to look for it. Her email was in turn forwarded to DiNardo, who had initially contacted Harford County and York County governments for assistance.

"Dawn went out several times in July and kept following up on leads from neighbors and checking with farmers in the area," he continued. "We're incredibly indebted to all the neighbors and particularly to Dawn."


DiNardo also said he remembers seeing the area where they found the balloon during his flyover in August, but much of the underbrush was 7 to 8 feet high.

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After they returned home Sunday, the girls were able to download more than 350 images taken by a camera that was part of the balloon payload – one they processed shows a portion of the earth from above – and other data recorded by a device that is similar to that used by drone pilots to control their craft, DiNardo said.

The sensors measured the payloads altitude, direction and pitch/roll, among other data, he said. All of it is to be checked and sorted.

The balloon project was something the three girls took on themselves, outside of school, according to DiNardo. He said some of the girls' friends know about the project and are excited for them that the mission was a success.

While it remains to be seen what they'll do with all the data, the whole experience has been an educational one. Last summer DiNardo noted that the girls had learned some coding, electronics and STEM skills in order to organize and build the project.

"We've joked they'll have a subject for college essays," he said

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