An unexpected STEM engagement opportunity cropped up when a high-altitude balloon with an Air Force payload got caught in a jet stream coming back down to Earth and landed in a remote area about 200km from the original launch site.

While Air Force's industry partner, Thunderstruck Space, knew the balloon had landed somewhere in the Grenfell, a regional NSW farming community, the company couldn't pinpoint the payload's precise location. Heavy rain further complicated the search and recovery efforts. 

On board the balloon were various optical cameras and a 3D-printed model of Jasper, the award-winning animated character developed by Air Force to encourage more children to engage with STEM careers. 

The balloon launch was one in a series of trials enabling Plan Jericho to test out different types of sensors in the stratosphere. As soon as Jasper heard about the launches, she decided she could not miss an opportunity to hitch a ride into the stratosphere – filming her journey in an immersive 360-degree selfie video for National Science Week. 

When a group of equally adventurous teenagers on school holidays heard about the $1000 reward being offered by Thunderstruck Space to find the balloon, they hopped on bikes and spent two days searching their 2200ha property in Grenfell.

Eventually, Alex Johnston, a 17-year-old with a keen interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) found the balloon with the payload and Jasper in a paddock, surrounded by very long grass. 

Alex, who is hoping to pursue studies in medical science, instantly became a local hero, featuring in a number of local media articles, including on the ABC News.

"I think it was pretty fun and ironic I found it," she said, referring to the fact that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Jasper.

Alex reflected on the role of Jasper saying, "It's good to see the encouragement going into STEM because we get taught at school that it is the future."

So, while Alex and her family are deciding how to spend their reward from Thunderstruck, Jericho's Advanced Sensing Lead Wing Commander Paul Hay is analysing the data and learnings from the trial.

"With each launch, we are discovering more and adjusting our game plan," Wing Commander Hay said.

"It's all part of the process as we gather data and knowledge that will enable us to develop sovereign capability to vastly improve situational awareness and complement space-based systems.

"These launches are also giving us exciting and interesting ways to engage the next generation.

"It is showing them all the wonderful and interesting opportunities right here in our own backyard – capabilities that we are developing together with our local innovative partners." 

Keep an eye out for Jasper’s 360-degree video that will launch during National Science Week in August as part of Air Force's STEM outreach.