Balloon To Carry CU Student "Mini Satellites" To Edge Of Space

Published: Aug. 23, 2001

A high-altitude balloon will be launched from Byers, Colo., on Saturday, Aug. 25, carrying a payload of miniature student-built satellites to an altitude of roughly 100,000 feet before bursting and releasing its cargo via parachute.

The three tiny experiments, dubbed "cubesats," were designed and built by two groups of Colorado high school students and a team of CU-Boulder undergraduates under the direction of Chris Koehler, deputy director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, part of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. The balloon launch is being coordinated by the "Edge of Space Sciences" group, or EOSS, a Colorado-based non-profit organization, which has been launching student balloon payloads for nearly a decade.

The 12 undergraduate students from Koehler's group at CU-Boulder will be in charge of the launch and monitor the balloon's progress via digital video downlink as it carries its 11.3-pound payload. Each of the cubesats is 10 centimeters on a side and weighs approximately 1 pound. Another Colorado-based group, the "Civilian Space Exploration Team," or CSXT, also is flying a payload called a "windsonde" aboard the craft. The college students' camera and monitoring equipment make up the rest of the payload weight.

The student teams have designed their own experiments to explore the upper atmosphere. All three cubesats are equipped with cameras to take high altitude photos.

One experiment will compare onboard temperature changes with photos taken at different intervals to get a better understanding of the atmosphere's

makeup at different altitudes. Another cubesat has special landing doors, which will pop open upon touchdown and cause the little craft to right itself. All of the experiments were built for less than $400.

Thanks to CSXT, the launch has caught the attention of The Discovery Channel, which will have a crew on hand for the launch and recovery. "In particular, they will be interested in the live video downlink," Koehler said.

The helium-filled mylar balloon will ascend at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute for approximately 90 minutes. Before bursting at its peak altitude, the balloon will have a diameter of nearly 30 feet. Since there is essentially no atmosphere at that height, the payload will plummet back to Earth at a speed approaching Mach 1, before being slowed by its parachute.

The students and their faculty advisers follow the balloon using radio and GPS tracking data.

"It's a lot like old-fashioned storm chasing," said Koehler. The group currently expects the payload's landing site to be approximately 19 miles northeast of the Byers' launch site.

Saturday marks the first balloon launch since the consortium's successful flight on April 21, which carried four of the cubesats to the very edge of Earth's atmosphere.

The Colorado Space Grant Consortium was created with funding from NASA in 1989 to give undergraduate students the opportunity to design, build and fly space instruments. Although all 50 states have their own consortiums, Colorado's has been especially successful, flying three sounding rocket payloads and two payloads on space shuttle missions.

For further details, including directions to the launch site, please see the EOSS Web site at, or contact Chris Koehler at (303) 492-4750.