Science Students Hit the Road for Balloon Bonanza

OGDEN, Utah – In early August, a group of Weber State University science and engineering technology  students are headed south to Duchesne County to take part in “Balloon Bonanza.” While it may sound like a delayed spring break road trip, the six-day exercise actually is designed to test the students’ abilities to think on their feet and gather scientific data in the field.

Last summer, WSU’s High Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research (HARBOR) project had its first successful launch. This year, students and faculty are planning to build on that success with multiple balloon launches Aug. 1 through 6.

HARBOR is a high altitude balloon system designed to be a near-space platform for student and amateur research projects in science and engineering. A latex, helium-filled balloon carries instrumentation that gauges air pressure, temperature and other scientific measurements from Earth’s atmosphere. When the balloon reaches the upper level of the atmosphere it bursts and a parachute deploys, carrying the craft back to earth. The balloon device is equipped with a command and telemetry system that continuously signals its position, helping students locate the device once it lands. The landing site and exact flight track vary for each flight. Last year’s maiden flight landed nearly 30 miles east of the original launch site.

The WSU HARBOR chapter is modeled after a similar program at Montana State University.

The student researchers and their physics professors and faculty advisors John Armstrong and John Sohl will stay at the Starvation Lake State Park campground. Launches are scheduled daily at 7 a.m. from the Duchesne Municipal Airport, beginning Aug. 2. Actual launch dates are subject to change depending on weather conditions and equipment durability.

Armstrong said the launch and rapid turn-around of the equipment presents a new set of challenges for the HARBOR team.

“Can we address setbacks in the field? Can we successfully manage multiflight campaigns?  Can we establish effective mission control in the field?” Armstrong said. “More flights mean more opportunities for success and failure and more learning.”

The HARBOR team is made up of physics and computer and electronics engineering technology students, along with students from geosciences and the bachelor of integrated studies program. The group has more than 30 members, and typically 12 to 15 students are involved with any specific launch.

The planning and preparation for each flight teaches students how to build and develop instruments within budgetary constraints and how to work together to tackle complex projects requiring different types of expertise.

"This is exactly what it would be like if they were given a task like the Mars Rover,” Armstrong said. “The team would be much bigger, of course, and the budget much larger, but it’s the same kind of scenario."

The primary goal for each flight is to take images and get a temperature and pressure profile for the flight. All of the data is archived and accessible to the public. Armstrong said the students have several ongoing research projects that analyze the temperature and pressure data, as well as basic balloon dynamics, in the lab after a mission and during the school year.

“The bonanza is a precursor to our next adventure: inviting multiple teams to come and launch their balloons simultaneously in one launch event,” Armstrong said.

Eventually, the team would like to develop a virtual experience where audiences could view a launch remotely. People could track the progress of the balloon and the chase team and ultimately receive video footage from the balloon in flight.

Armstrong and his team of researchers are grateful to the people of Duchesne County for their support and assistance, particularly Al and Sue Rydman and Mayor Clint Park.

Visit space.weber.edu/harbor/ for more information about HARBOR and groups.google.com/group/harbor-utah/web/flightstatus for more details about the Balloon Bonanza schedule.

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.
Contact:
John Armstrong, assistant physics professor
801-626-6215 · jcarmstrong@weber.edu
Author:
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 • jkowalewski@weber.edu