Trailing from a huge, white latex weather balloon, a payload designed by University of Idaho students launched Saturday morning, survived subzero temperatures and parachuted safely back to Earth.
Seventeen students from the Vandal Atmospheric Science Team rose before dawn to caravan to Eastern Washington and launch the NASA-sponsored project, which the team’s leader said cost thousands of dollars and took students hundreds of hours to build.
During its roughly two-hour flight, the balloon climbed to nearly 90,000 feet before bursting. Its payload broadcast live video and captured hundreds of still digital images of the black vacuum of near-space and the blue-hued curvature of the Earth.
Launched from the small town of Lamont, Wash., located southwest of Spokane, the payload landed intact in a field near Tekoa, Wash. – more than 30 miles away.
While it wasn’t the team’s first balloon payload flight, it was the first to capture digital images, said Austin Howard, 24, a mechanical engineering graduate student who leads the group.
“This has been the most successful one that I’ve been a part of,” Howard said, noting that recent balloons flew lower or weren’t recovered. “This has been very exciting.”
The university team is one of several statewide participating in a NASA-sponsored program that encourages student-designed aerospace-related projects. Science team members participate as a for-credit class and as an extracurricular activity.
Students piled out of vehicles into the parking lot of the Lamont’s school shortly after 6 a.m. to prepare for liftoff. The team wanted to launch near dawn to take advantage of light winds, Howard said. They worked in a frigid drizzle and gusty winds.
Several students hauled large orange helium tanks while others unpacked two pink foam cases housing the payload’s student-designed computers and communication equipment.
Wearing a blue NASA sweatshirt and white gloves to protect the latex balloon from oil on his hands, team member Justin Schlee, 32, unrolled the weather balloon.
“I haven’t actually filled a balloon yet,” he said. “We’ll just take a whirl at it.”
Students poured a translucent liquid called “Super Hi-Float” into the balloon in hopes of extending its flight, and they began filling it with gas. Others turned on and tested the payload’s electronics, applying liberal amounts of duct tape.
The modules, designed to operate in a near-vacuum and withstand tumbling through the atmosphere on the way down, included sensors to measure acceleration, temperature and humidity.
The team shoved toe-warming pads into the two nearly air-tight boxes to keep the electronics warm enough to operate. Students also used special batteries because normal ones won’t function at temperatures as low as minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest temperature recorded by the payload.
Nathan Bialke, 21, senior computer engineering and mathematics major and assistant leader of the Vandal Atmospheric Science Team, said this is his fourth semester in the program.
“It’s really fun because of the pictures and stuff you get at altitude,” he said, noting that the sky looks black in near-space because there isn’t enough oxygen to refract light.
Bialke said the group sets its own goals and decided when to launch. Like several team members, Bialke hopes to use the program to launch a career in the aerospace industry.
Bewildered neighbors, including a sweater-wearing dog, emerged to watch the students as they attached the modules, which weighed about 8 pounds total, to a black and red parachute and to the balloon.
The group redesigned the structures in the past three weeks to cut down their weight and size to avoid stricter Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
After a courtesy call alerting the FAA and working out some last-minute kinks in the video system, Schlee let go of the balloon, now several feet tall, just before 8 a.m.
The team expected pressure of the gas inside the balloon to cause it to expand during flight, making it grow as large as 30 feet in diameter, Howard said.
The students then joined other team members at Steptoe Butte State Park – a nearly 50-mile drive southeast – to track the balloon’s progress from a rocky bluff with a 360-degree view. While they could tell the balloon was heading toward Rosalia, Wash., they couldn’t maintain a video signal beyond a couple minutes after liftoff.
Team members found the modules about two hours later in a field west of Tekoa, within the area computer models run before the launch had predicted it would fall.
While the discoverers planned to wait for the other students before opening the payload, they realized it survived its journey to near-space only to face a threat on the ground – an oncoming tractor cresting a hill near the package. The team dragged it to safety, and when the group assembled, students huddled around for a peek at their images from space.
“You can literally see the different layers of the atmosphere,” Bialke said.