Students Set to Explore Stratosphere

A NASA-funded, Colorado Space Grant Consortium-sponsored launch April 13 near Windsor, Colo., by the Community College of Aurora hopes to provide scientific and engineering breakthroughs that advance space knowledge, while at the same time training the next generation of scientists and engineers.

A semester-long Experimental Design Class at CCA has been going through the steps normally taken before full-fledged space launches at NASA mission control. Planning, testing and design all have been scrutinized more than once pre-flight, with help from University of Colorado-Boulder scientists.

Four, four-man teams will send up boxes with a mass limit of 850 grams (about 1 11/2 pounds) via latex balloon that will expand until it pops. Each payload will be equipped with a camera, computer motherboard, and pressure and temperature sensors and will travel about 20 miles from the planet’s surface before hurtling back to ground slowed by an oversized parachute.
It’s expected that, depending on wind conditions, the payloads will be recovered about 25 miles from launch site. A global-positioning satellite device and radio transmitter ensures the experiments can be tracked and eventually located.

The area in the atmosphere that will be explored is surprisingly light on useful scientific information, CCA Science faculty Victor Andersen said. The gap to which the balloon will rise resides between where airplanes fly and satellites orbit. That portion of the stratosphere is integral, though, because of that untapped potential and the possibilities it holds of new discoveries that move science and engineering forward for future space exploration.

“Nature knows how to do things that we, as humans, have trouble imagining and believing in,” Andersen said. “As scientists, one of the things we’ve learned certainly over the last 100 years is if you go to some environment you’ve never been in before, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll find something interesting you didn’t expect.”

For example, it’s only within the last few years that bacteria that were thought to be unable to live at high altitudes due to cold and ultraviolet radiation could actually thrive in the upper atmosphere. New strains have been found where these balloons fly, as well.

The Community College of Aurora teams will conduct four different tests. Two deal with biology. The first looks at different things that happen to bacteria outside its home base and whether they mutate or remain in
‘safe mode’ while the environment changes. The other examines strains of bacteria normally found on human skin that help keep us healthy. Again, the goal is to track the effects of extreme environments and what they could mean to the human ecosystem.

A third experiment will measure the planet’s electric field. The final test will gauge how new, lithium polymer batteries that are much lighter and carry more energy by mass perform in the upper atmosphere.

“These students 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. That’s what this is all 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 institutions because they know they’re ready. It’s as close to the real world experience that you can give them in an educational setting.”

All the competing teams will give a presentation a week after the launch at a research symposium hosted by Community College of Aurora. The students, in total, will have a month after launch and landing to analyze data.

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

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