Balloon launch takes student research to great heights

January 11, 2016 by Fariss Samarrai

On a stunningly clear October morning, a 400-foot-tall NASA high-altitude balloon rose from an airport runway in Fort Sumner, New Mexico and began its ascent into the stratosphere.

The last flight in NASA's fall balloon campaign, its payloads included the JefferSat Cosmic Ray Mission, an experiment to measure radiation caused by entering the atmosphere. The payload was designed, built and tested by University of Virginia engineering in a spacecraft design class taught by Christopher Goyne, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The flight was sponsored by NASA's Undergraduate Student Instrument Project Flight Opportunity program.

"One of the advantages of this project is that it gives students the opportunity to design and fly an experiment for a real NASA mission," Goyne said. "That creates an impact far beyond what can be achieved with a classroom assignment."

The project, officially started in 2013, was several years in the making. The first group of students applied for funding totaling $75,000 from both NASA and UVA's School of Engineering and Applied Science. Later students designed the payload, which protects the measurement instrument – a radiation spectrometer – so that it can function in the low-temperature, low-pressure environment of near space. Another group tested the components in an environmental chamber at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over the years, the team has included majors in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering and astronomy.

The video will load shortly

The mechanical and students involved in the flight operations – Emily Snavely, Patrick Van Dam and Chandrakanth Venigalla – have been analyzing the spectrometer data collected during the eight hours the balloon was at 103,000 feet, above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere. Their goal is to determine if the data they collected validates a model developed by NASA Langley, the Nowcast of Atmospheric Ionizing Radiation for Aviation Safety. This model correlates radiation produced by cosmic rays entering the atmosphere to radiation exposure for passengers and crews flying at conventional altitudes.

This is a serious issue. A frequent flyer who has chalked up 100,000 miles has endured the equivalent of 20 chest X-rays. The predictions generated by the model will enable airlines to take protective measures.

The students' work is an extension of a more complicated NASA Langley cosmic ray measurement project called RaD-X, which flew on a balloon earlier in the season. The leader of that project, Christopher Mertens, a senior research scientist at NASA Langley, visited the spacecraft design class, provided guidance for students selecting an instrument for JefferSat (they chose one of the instruments flown on RaD-X), and taught them how to use it. As students developed their payload design, NASA engineers on the RaD-X team provided input and feedback.

Mechanical and aerospace engineering students Emily Snavely, Patrick Van Dam and Chandrakanth Venigalla have been analyzing data collected in October during an eight hour high-altitude balloon flight.

"From an educational point of view, one of the benefits of this project has been that undergraduates had the opportunity to work closely with NASA researchers," Goyne said. "It gave them a chance to see how practicing engineers and scientists approached similar design problems and to work on a project with important real-world consequences."

The students agree.

"Being able to work as a team with NASA on a real hands-on engineering project was a great opportunity," Van Dam said. He hopes to use the experience and his new NASA connections to find work in the aerospace industry after graduation.

The JefferSat mission collected radiation and other data during its flight to 103,000 feet in October.

One of the innovative features of the students' payload design was replacing the payload's flight computer, sensors and data storage with a smartphone.

"The phone's components are in many ways equivalent to those used in commercial spacecraft," Goyne said. "Although they had been used for orbital satellite missions, using them for scientific balloon flight is unusual."

One of the advantages of the smartphone (in this case an Android phone) was that students could write software for the phone in the form of an app, test it out on their own phones and upload it to the flight phone as software.

"It was an interesting way for students to apply everyday technology to a scientific mission," Goyne said. "The data we have recovered and analyzed looks excellent. We are continuing to post-process the data to prepare it for comparison with the NASA models."

Explore further: Experiment to measure cosmic radiation in the stratosphere aboard a NASA high-altitude balloon

Related Stories

NASA seeking student experiments for balloon flight

October 28, 2011

NASA is accepting applications from graduate and undergraduate university students to fly experiments to the edge of space on a scientific balloon. This balloon flight competition is a joint project between NASA and the Louisiana ...

DXL-2: Studying X-ray emissions in space

December 3, 2015

The blackness of space. There isn't much visible light in space - but there are numerous other wavelengths of light and scientists want to know what's out there and where it comes from.

Recommended for you

Freeze-dried food and 1 bathroom: 6 simulate Mars in dome

January 20, 2017

Crammed into a dome with one bathroom, six scientists will spend eight months munching on mostly freeze-dried foods—with a rare treat of Spam—and have only their small sleeping quarters to retreat to for solace.

Image: Wavemaker moon Daphnis

January 20, 2017

The wavemaker moon, Daphnis, is featured in this view, taken as NASA's Cassini spacecraft made one of its ring-grazing passes over the outer edges of Saturn's rings on Jan. 16, 2017. This is the closest view of the small ...

Video: A colorful 'landing' on Pluto

January 20, 2017

What would it be like to actually land on Pluto? This movie was made from more than 100 images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft over six weeks of approach and close flyby in the summer of 2015. The video offers a trip ...

The evolution of massive galaxy clusters

January 20, 2017

Galaxy clusters have long been recognized as important laboratories for the study of galaxy formation and evolution. The advent of the new generation of millimeter and submillimeter wave survey telescopes, like the South ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.