Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung are flying high. Over the past three summers, the Queen Anne sisters, ages 13 and 11 respectively, have conducted a series of experiments involving the launch of weather balloons carrying cameras and astronomical instruments into the stratosphere—and their efforts have caught the attention of the scientific community.
In April 2016, the sisters exhibited their spacecraft and findings in the State Dining Room during the White House Science Fair, when they met President Obama and explained their work. Since then, they have served as the keynote speakers at the “Girls Rule!” conference in Oregon for girls ages 9–14 involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Kennedy Space Center, and collaborated with NASA and the Montana Space Grant Consortium on their third launch last summer. Their original space flyer is being retired from service and is slated for display beginning in March at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.
The girls’ father, Winston Yeung, originally encouraged his daughters to pursue a project that would involve setting goals and finding solutions. After narrowing their options, they chose space launches over raising chickens and devised the “Loki Lego Launcher” project, naming it after their cat, Loki, and the Lego figures they attach to their spacecraft. By launching balloons into the stratosphere—Earth’s second major layer of atmosphere—their instruments escaped atmospheric interference, which allowed their camera to photograph the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth, both goals from the outset.
Their experiments also measured variables in weather patterns and solar phenomena, which allowed them to make predictions for future launches and analyze the accuracy of their previous estimates.
The success of their launches is only part of what the girls have achieved. They’ve also become role models for their peers. “Girls came up to us and told us they were going to try to do a science project, too,” Rebecca said about the Girls Rule! conference. “It’s inspiring for us.”
Both girls attend Lakeside Middle School in North Seattle. Kimberly is planning to be a robotics engineer, but Rebecca hasn’t yet made up her mind. “I don’t just like STEM,” she says. “I like English and social studies as well.”
Each launch had a specific goal. With the first launch, the sisters hoped their craft would reach 50,000 feet (it easily reached 78,000 feet); with the second, the aim was to go even higher to test their newly added solar panel. “We had a hypothesis that the higher we went, the more solar data we would get, because there are fewer particles in the air,” Rebecca explains. “We were really excited when that was true.” The goal of the third launch was to send up a microbiology kit provided by NASA, and to photograph the totality of last summer’s eclipse.
The girls have a reason to celebrate on February 11. It’s the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science.