"Outside the Box"

BalloonSat experiments allow 16 students to reach for the stratosphere

By Lee Rasizer
CCA Public Relations Coordinator

 It’s just after 6 a.m. on April 13 outside a middle school in Eaton, Colo., the sun is just peeking over the horizon, and three months of work is literally about to disappear into thin air.

 Experiments attached to a BalloonSat are ready to go airborne, hopefully to return unscathed. But when you are sending boxes made of foam material filled with delicate computer instrumentation, a camera, batteries, bacteria and other assorted wires and gizmos about 100,000 miles into the stratosphere, one can never be too sure if the payload will arrive back safely.

 Four teams of four CCA students apiece from Victor Andersen’s Experimental Design Class, though, have a sense of confidence that their meticulously detailed projects will yield productive data - or it may just be the caffeine from the free-flowing coffee on this brisk morning that’s doing the talking.

 The project, sponsored by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, already has gone through most of the steps of a real NASA mission, with the same stepladder approach of planning, testing and designing involved. But it’s all come down to this: launch day.

 There have been bench tests on the rectangular boxes that will hold their experiments. Before that, students were required to write proposals that gained approval before projects even were allowed to reach the design phase.

 There were a series of reviews, including speakerphone critiques by University of Colorado scientists of PowerPoint presentations that laid out each of the teams’ pre-flight theses.  A flight director and his team have attempted to ensure safety with a final launch readiness review.

 But the hydrogen filled balloon that carries much of the project’s fate can be fickle, once a parachute-topped string with experiments attached like a kite’s tail is snapped on and the whole shebang goes airborne.

 The best-case scenario is everything lands smoothly about 75 miles away, an estimate based on this particular Saturday’s weather predictions. The fervent hope is that after the experiments are unpacked, something heretofore undiscovered is revealed.

 The worst-case scenario? CCA’s four teams – named The Voltanators, Revolution, Bacto-box, and Charlie – have some ideas.

  “When it falls down, it falls down on the highway and a semi-truck hits it and we get no data back,” one student says.

  “A Cessna could hit it, too,” another chimes in.

  The Federal Aviation Administration has been notified that objects will be entering  this particular airspace, so that latter scenario’s doubtful.  It’s the primary reason that this launch, the fourth straight year this project aimed at developing and training the next generation of scientists and engineers, has moved outside of the more crowded Denver-area airspace to more rural settings for liftoff.

  “Another fear is it lands in a field of bulls somewhere in Kansas. Who’ll get it then?,” one of the more imaginative males in the CCA group said.

  “Ladies first …,” he added, making the assembled CCA class members  burst out into laughter.

  If anything, this project already has been a success as a team-building exercise. Amongst all the sweat, thought and Skittles that went into these projects, there were equal parts jokes and camaraderie.

  “I’m going to have to change the Chuck Norris fact book if we don’t get our readings,” promises student Hartley Ihrig, who has named the Voltanators’ payload after the actor whose powers, according to Internet legend, are superhuman.

  “Because,” Ihrig explained. “Nothing goes wrong when you have Chuck Norris involved.”

  Ready or not, it’s go time.

  Seven boxes attached by cord – four from CCA, the others from the University of Colorado and Pikes Peak Community College – begin to be transported to the nearby open field. One student from each team carries the payload on which he’s toiled. Their march goes past the giant balloon that will send this whole mission into the sky. The hissing sound as the eight-foot dirigible is inflated is unmistakable.

 Steve Meer, working for Edge of Space Sciences, which will track and recover the payloads once they’ve floated via parachute back to solid ground, begins to shout out launch instructions.

 The payload string is about 80 feet long, and several individuals begin the process of affixing the hydrogen-filled balloon to that cord. All of the payloads have been weighed in advance so that the precise amount of inflation fills the balloon.

  “When I tell you to pick up the payloads, pick up the payloads, turn it on, walk it over and when we launch it, hold it away from you and let it drift out of your hand,” Meer shouts to the students.

  The payload handlers oblige, stretching out the string tightly.

  “Up and away from your face,” Meer adds. “You don’t want part of your lips to go into space today.”

  Up, up and away it goes – air-filled latex, not any Chapsticked appendages.

  It didn’t take long before the BalloonSat was out of view using the naked eye. GPS and

radio transmission devices in SUVs that will track and trail its voyage can now take over the chase.

  “It was a little surreal moment, I would say,” student Bonnie Levitt, another Voltanators team member said moments after launch. “I couldn’t stop watching the balloon. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it.”

Four years and running

  The BalloonSat launch also is backed by NASA, and, in reality, is workforce development to help train the next generation of scientists and engineers so that they’re employable at the space agency or similar contractors in the field following the students’ departure from college.

  There are numerous constraints placed on each team, comprised of individuals who largely volunteer for inclusion in this project.

  There’s a monetary budget. The entirety of the payload can only weight about 1.5 pounds. Pressure and temperature sensors measure the environment on the way up. An Arduino computer board helps measure the output. The onboard camera takes continual photos of ascent and descent, if all goes according to plan. Most of the raw materials are found at hobby stores, like foam core poster board. Much of the payload is tightened with hot glue.

  As Andersen put it, “There’s a premium on cheap and light.”

  At its apex, the high-altitude balloon is expected to travel about 30 kilometers above the surface. One advantage to conducting tests at that height is that the environment is very similar to what’s seen on the surface of Mars, in terms of temperature and pressure.

  “It’s really an interesting part of the Earth because it’s pretty hard to get access to that part,” Andersen explained. “You can get to lower levels of the atmosphere just by flying an airplane. You want to get higher, you fly a satellite. But at that level you’re still in the atmosphere but you’re too high for normal airplane flight.

  “In some ways it’s part of the Earth we know surprisingly little about, which is surprising given that it’s only 20 miles away from us.”

  Four separate experiments were to be in play amongst CCA’s payloads.

  The Voltanators ventured to test the use of rechargeable lithium-polymer batteries as a replacement for alkaline batteries on balloon flights. Team Revolution designed and built an electric field mill to gauge its structural integrity and collect electric field data. Team Bacto-Box wanted to examine the effects of the near-space environment on human skin flora and the shielding effect of minerals.

 Team Charlie was to send up endospore forming and non-endospore forming bacteria and expose them to stratospheric conditions.

  “They will come out of the process with a set of skills and confidence that they know what they’re doing and can tackle bigger and better projects. It’s what all this is about,” Andersen said. “This is why we put them through the program. This is why space-grant students are prized by companies when they graduate from whatever institution because they know they’re ready. It’s as close to the real world experience that you can give them in an educational setting, almost.”

  CCA’s 2013 spring launch represents the fourth straight year it’s taken place. A group of students from the college won best prize during the inaugural launch when bacteria placed in the extreme environment was examined at the DNA level and a significant, two percent difference in genetic code resulted.

  “Every cohort that’s come through has students that are gong to go on to do great things,” Anderson said. “We just need to give them a chance to do it. That’s all.”

What goes up …

  The call came from Andersen’s cell phone, ironically, at 9:11 a.m.

 “Turn right on Road 11,” he said. “The balloon got caught on a power line, so this should be interesting.”

  Sure enough, the long cord holding the experiments draped over the electrical line like a towel on a shower rack, the parachute whipping in the wind to the other side.

  The chase leaders in their SUVs flashed lights and kept students and other observers away, while sparks flew off the lead box, which was touching 40,000 watts of juice.

  When people describe somewhere as the middle of nowhere, this area just about qualified, making it even more amazing that something traveling at 1,100 feet a minute on its downward fall could position itself just right to find this point to snag.

  The payloads went up, and mostly came down, while re-locating north of Messex, Colo., just a few miles west of Interstate 76, about halfway between Fort Sterling and Brush. The Denver metro area at this point is about 150 miles away. Farmland and empty fields fill every direction.

 Meer, who has worked eight years in tracking and recovery of BalloonSats, said out of the 186 missions in which he’s participated, only four have endured such a fate – hung up and strung up. Yet, as bad luck would have it, it was the second in a row. 

 Morgan County Electric Company was notified by amateur radio of the situation.

  “It didn’t come in contact with the ground, so it’s not too bad,” said student Brett Baker of Team Bacto-Box, even though three months of work was, for all intents and purposes, hanging by a thread. “At least we can see where it is and we’re not hunting down some farmhouse trying to access.”

  Andersen was asked if there was money in the budget to pay for a cherry picker truck rescue operation. “We did not,” he said with a smile. “So hopefully Space Grant will pick up the tab for this.”

  What did go right was that the computerized model of the balloon’s path  modeled pre-flight by computer software was nearly dead on – sending it approximately 75 miles east and a little south of Eaton.

  From the laptop computer affixed to the passenger side of his vehicle, Meer already could ascertain that the latex balloon exploded after reaching about 99,000 feet at its peak.

  People on he ground huddled for about a 45-minute wait. Most chose the comfort and heat of their cars while awaiting the electric company’s arrival to cut the line.

  Once that snip came,  the payloads fell in a cluster into a bank of snow.

  “The camera looks like it’s still on,” a discussion then began.

  “See the lens extended on the end there?

  “Unless it’s broken, while it’s on …”

  “Nah, it won’t break while ‘on’.”

  A pause ensued.

  “So, we’re just staring at it like dummies ….?”

  As the boxes were picked up, immediate signs of the flight emerged. White Velcro had turned a purplish hue. There were burn marks on the payload that touched the power line. Sorry, CU.

  Team Voltanators rushed to the back of their vehicle to pull out the SD card that was supposed to capture photos.

  “We got pictures!” Levitt exclaimed a few minutes later. “That’s what I’m talking about!”

  Team Charlie’s camera it turned out wasn’t fully operational, failing at around 30,000 feet on ascent.  Team Revolution’s Arduino computer chip seemingly died. But these issues are always part and parcel of the final phase of the project: a study of the results, followed by a presentation on team findings at a research symposium a week after launch.

  “This was the most difficult, hands on, time intensive experience I’ve had at CCA,” said Team Revolution’s Kim Buchanan, an aspiring engineer. “But it was worth it.”

  “This whole thing was a little surreal to begin with, because I didn’t think schools offered anything like this at all. I was actually pretty shocked about it,” said Austin Genger, Buchanan’s teammate. “But what really hit home is that we can actually do stuff like this in any old lab. So this is sort of perfect training for it, too. It gets us lab ready and ready to be in that work field.”

Mixed results

 And what of the lessons learned:

  • The Voltanators concluded that four alkaline batteries could be replaced by three LiPo batteries, saving about 50 grams of mass and $20 per balloon flight.
  • Team Revolution’s electric mill kept its structural integrity but was unable to collect field data because while post-flight testing showed that the mill was working, an amplifier circuit was needed to boost the mill’s signal. The team hopes to fly the mill again in August.
  • Team Bacto-Box saw all of its bacteria live through the flight and was able to culture them. The amount of DNA was surprisingly low, so they’re working to understand the reasons behind that. Simplifying the experiment and conducting more ground testing were among the lessons learned.
  • Team Charlie’s samples all successfully grew, but due to the large number of samples, were not able to analyze gram-stain data before the symposium.

  “Hopefully, they got good data and saw interesting things from their experiments,” Andersen said. “But what really excites me is what are they going to do next? Now that they’ve had this experiment, how will they take this experiment and move on to the next phase of their lives and careers.”

  Meer noted that previous students have gone on to work at prestigious research centers and in other high-tech areas.

 “This is exactly what we think about when we think of STEM, is getting it out to the real world, having some fun with it and putting it into a real practical application.”

  Even if that means staring at a box that’s just fallen on the ground and standing agape while a camera one wonders if operational snaps a picture of awkward facial expressions.

  However, that image is more than counterbalanced by stunning pictures of the Earth’s surface, shot from the darkness, emanating from an experiment built by student hands.

  “Spaaaaaccceeee!!!!!” Gerardo Pulido exclaimed the first time such a frame from the stratosphere came into view on the computer screen.

  Sun rays poked through clouds in another frame. The cosmos somehow now seem attainable, touchable.

  “It looks like Neverland,” Levitt marveled.


CUTLINES (From top): A view of the stratosphere shot from 99,000 feet above the Earth's surface from a camera onboard a box sent airborne by a high-altitude balloon; just above the clouds in the early morning after liftoff from Eaton, Colo.; the balloon, with parachute and experimental boxes attached, first hits the air; Morgan County Electric Co. was called to cut down the experiment after the cord holding the parachute and experiments snagged on a power line; a burn marks the box that came in direct contact with the power line; the balloon that sent the experiment off the ground, before it was attached to its payloads; CCA students Aaron Bartlett and Bonnie Levitt get a first glance of the photos on an SD card from an onboard camera; payloads sit on the ground while a group wonders if the camera remains operational. A shadowy picture gives a definitive answer in the affirmative.


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