Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Students Send Balloons to the Stratosphere

How different does the world look from 100,000 feet in the air? How do cities and suburbs, fields and forests appear when viewed from a vantage point of nearly twenty miles above Earth's surface?

Through an innovative program at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, local high school students have the opportunity to make these discoveries firsthand while learning practical math, science and engineering skills. Participants in the BalloonSAT Exploring Program launch a 6-foot diameter weather balloon, complete with experiments and cameras, into the space-like regions of Earth's upper atmosphere.

Exploring with Balloons

The Exploring Program is affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America. This program is designed to give high school students opportunities to experience different potential careers. Throughout the country, students in the Exploring Program learn from various professionals -- like firemen, police officers and medical workers -- about the skills necessary for these jobs. At Glenn, students explore what it's like to be a scientist or engineer in one of four Exploring Posts: Aeronautics, Computer, Human Space Exploration and BalloonSAT. Stephanie Brown-Houston, from the Glenn Educational Program, is the program manager for the Exploring Program → at Glenn.

The use of weather balloons as satellites (BalloonSAT) first began at Glenn a decade ago as a way of investigating solar cell calibration in space. A small payload which tracked the sun was suspended by a weather balloon and flown to gather data. The balloon served as an inexpensive high-altitude launch system.

High school students in the BalloonSAT Exploring Post at Glenn   work with NASA scientists and engineers to launch a 6-foot diameter   weather balloon into the stratosphereThe BalloonSAT Exploring Post 632 began in 2004. Dr. David Snyder, a physicist and electrical engineer in the Photovoltaic and Power Technologies branch of the Power & In-Space Propulsion division at Glenn, is the lead advisor for BalloonSAT Exploring Post.

"The overall goal is to give high school kids a chance to explore these professions," Snyder says. "It's about getting them interested in science and space and technology."

Learning by Doing

Each academic year, a group of 10 to 15 high school students join the BalloonSAT Exploring Post. These diverse students, from multiple high schools around the Cleveland area, work together to perform one or two launches every year. When the first launch occurs, it is more of a demonstration launch and takes place early in the program, in the fall. The second launch, which takes place in early spring, is coordinated and executed by the students and features the experiments they designed.

"BalloonSAT attempts to simulate a satellite mission," Snyder says. "We give students the chance to design experiments and fly them with a flight program, and get results."

The students work all year to research, develop, design and fabricate experiments that will be flown when they launch their balloon. In the seven missions that BalloonSAT has flown, dozens of student-designed experiments have been launched 100,000 feet in the air.

Previous experiments have included:
  • Exposure experiments with rubber bands, seeds and mold
  • Light and temperature sensors
  • Aerogel particle capture
  • Cosmic ray detection
  • Geiger counters
  • Electronic compass correlation
  • Carbon Dioxide/Ozone detectors
  • Solar cell measurements
  • Latex balloon expansion
  • Yeast growth and carbon dioxide generation
This year's launch, which is schedule for April 24, includes a variety of experiments such as:
  • 3-D photography
  • Video image transmission
  • Chemical hand warmer testing
  • Electric field disturbances
  • Glass fragility during flight
  • Wood glue exposure
  • Humidity measurements
The students spend the year preparing for the launch; the multi-faceted project teaches the students numerous skills.

"The idea is to use the balloon as a launch vehicle, and then have a whole mission that's like a satellite mission. There is a lot of science, there is a lot of pre-flight testing and there is designing the flight plan," Snyder says. "There's a wide range of activities in addition to their experiments. It's a whole flight project."

Skills from many fields are developed in the BalloonSAT project, including:
  • Communications and telemetry
  • Problem solving
  • Power and battery issues
  • Tracking
  • Flight Prediction
  • Coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Up, Up and Away

Cameras carried by the balloon take photographs every 30 secondsOn launch day, all of the students' and their mentors' hard work comes to fruition at the exciting launch. The latex balloon, initially 6-feet in diameter, is launched into the mid-to-upper stratosphere, about 100,000 feet above Earth's surface. The mid-to-upper stratosphere is above 99% of the atmosphere -- much higher than even commercial aircraft fly. The conditions here are similar to conditions on Mars.

The balloon rises at a rate of 1,000 feet a minute, so it takes about 2 hours for the balloon to reach its apex. It then bursts, and returns to Earth in about an hour. The balloon, which expands to about 18-feet in diameter as it passes through different temperatures during its ascent, is typically visible to the naked eye throughout its entire journey.

"It's kind of amazing," Snyder says.

The BalloonSAT team tracks the balloon visually and via GPS and Ham Radio, and collects the deflated balloon after it lands. Then the team starts investigating the results of their carefully-planned experiments, and reviews the footage the cameras on the balloon produced.

The digital cameras installed on the balloon take a picture every 30 seconds. The sideways shots display the atmosphere and some of the ground, while the straight down shots display details of Earth. The photographs are taken by inexpensive, point-and-shoot digital cameras that have been modified to have an external switch rather than the factory-installed button. The resulting images are informational and visually intriguing.

"It's impressive to see the images," Snyder says.

Mentoring Young Scientists

NASA funds the Exploring Program at Glenn, including the BalloonSAT post. A minimum of $1,000 provides supplies for the activities, including the cameras, equipment to build and construct payloads, balloons and helium.

The BalloonSAT Exploring Post has proven so successful that a nation-wide competition for high school students will be hosted by Glenn this May. Winning entries were submitted by schools in Utah, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the students will converge at Glenn to launch their experiments aloft in a balloon.

The pairing of high school STEM students and experienced NASA scientists has proven effective -- many of the students who have participated in the program have gone on to study engineering and related fields in college. This experiential learning, as one of Snyder's Exploring Program students told him, brings science to life.

"She said that this is not just learning in a book. It is a chance to actually do things and have the experience. The hands-on aspect, to her, was very important," Snyder says.

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