Student Experiments To Set Sail On High-Altitude Balloons

Published: July 23, 2003

Editor's Note: Student teams from throughout Colorado will demonstrate their payloads at the final Launch Readiness Review set for Friday, Aug. 1, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Discovery Learning Center, located on the southwest corner of Colorado Avenue and Regent Drive in Boulder. The review is not open to the public, but reporters and photographers are welcome to attend.

Undergraduate student teams from 11 colleges and universities in Colorado will launch high-altitude balloon experiments Aug. 2 from Deer Trail, Colo., testing new concepts and technologies that could be used on future space flight missions.

The experiments range from scientific instruments that could be used to measure weather conditions in a Mars-like environment to prototype devices that would deploy upon landing and operate a planetary rover.

More than 400 students have been involved in developing the experiments since the "DemoSat" project was funded through a $100,000 grant from NASA in December 2002. The project is an expansion of the successful "BalloonSat" program developed by Chris Koehler, deputy director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium headquartered at CU-Boulder.

"Our high-altitude balloon programs give students hands-on experience in designing, building, flying, operating and analyzing real space engineering and science experiments," said Koehler. "It's a really great experience for freshman and sophomore engineering students because it enables them to see the wide range of paths their future careers could take."

In the DemoSat program, students have worked with NASA scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center, as well as faculty from their own institutions to develop the ideas and prototypes.

The experiments, which will be launched on two balloons, will reach an altitude of about 100,000 feet before the balloons burst and the experiments plummet back to earth. Students will track and retrieve their devices using radio communications and GPS data.

In addition to providing experimental data of potential use to NASA, the CU-Boulder team will be testing technologies for a later mission. Students will launch a version of the decision-making and communications software they designed for "Three Corner Satellite," a stereoscopic imaging mission being developed in collaboration with Arizona State and New Mexico State universities.

The systems are intended to rank the quality of photographic images taken during flight and transmit only the best images to the ground, thus making the best use of satellite downlink times.

"The balloon experiment offers a quick and inexpensive way to test the image-ranking algorithms and communications technologies," said project manager Kevin McWilliams, a senior in aerospace engineering sciences. "We'll get the data back in just two to three hours."

The students also must tackle a number of other engineering challenges to have a successful experiment, including protecting their payload from temperatures nearing minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit, pressure close to vacuum and descent speeds exceeding Mach 1.

CU-Boulder sophomores Nick Pulaski and Cameron Hatcher said the project has been an excellent learning experience.

"When we first started working at Space Grant, we didn't fully understand everything we were assigned, but there are a lot of great people here that have helped us," Hatcher said. "I hope we get some good results from the launch."