Spirits soared higher than a kite for students in John Schneeg’s special-projects engineering class on Saturday, November 17, 2012, when the fruits of their labor ascended to the edge of space after months of hard work and a morning launch in the Arizona desert south of Phoenix.
The class, comprising eight Glendale Community College (GCC) students, participated in Flight 14 of the Arizona Space Grant ASCEND! Their goal: build satellite prototypes to be lifted by a weather balloon to 92,000 feet above the desert floor into the part of the atmosphere known as “near space.”
The launch was the culmination of a semester-long project sponsored by NASA and funded by the Arizona Space Grant Consortium. Other schools, including Arizona State University, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Pima Community College, South Mountain Community College and the University of Arizona, hosted classes of their own. Jack Crabtree, faculty at Emery Riddle, coordinated the project.
Class members met weekly to plan the project, design and build two instrumented payloads to be carried aloft by a buoyant hydrogen-filled weather balloon. It was a complex assignment, involving soldering, wiring a breadboard (a temporary circuit connection), programming microprocessors to record temperature, wiring sensors and working with rapid-prototyping equipment (also known as a 3D printer).
Equipment was designed to monitor pressure, compass direction, acceleration and radiation readings during the balloon’s ascent and to store the data in memory for recall later. Video cameras were included in the payloads to capture the flight in real time. (See video following this story.)
Designing and building capsules to hold this equipment was also an integral part of the project. They had to be engineered to resist perils of flight, including temperatures as low as minus-thirty degrees Fahrenheit. To compound the challenge, the balloon could carry a maximum payload of 26 pounds, restricting each school to a maximum payload of three pounds, including capsule(s) and the equipment to be nested within.
Invoking creativity, one of the GCC student teams used a hollow, 12-inch rigid-foam sphere as the basis for their capsule, which they named “Death Star.” The other GCC team’s capsule, “Venturer,” started modestly as a lightweight metal frame inside a small lampshade. But instead of housing a warm light bulb in the cozy confines of someone’s home, this lampshade would find itself rising to the cold edge of outer space.
The GCC capsules satisfied the weight limitation, their combined weight coming in at a trim 2.8 pounds. They also met budget goals. “We kept them cost-efficient and relatively easy to build, to model a kit we can pass on to other community colleges and high schools, saving them time and money,” said GCC mentor, John Schneeg.
Participants redoubled their efforts as launch date approached: so much to do, so little time! Fueled by pizza and caffeine, they worked into the wee hours of the morning before launch, fine-tuning wiring, installing components and sealing the capsules.
The culmination of the semester-long project class was scheduled for Saturday, November 17: Launch date! After a 5 a.m. breakfast call, participants from the various colleges gathered at the launch site in Maricopa, Arizona, to tie in their payloads, spaced about ten feet apart. After checking to make sure everything was OK — and after a last-minute delay that involved a missing weather balloon (oops!) — the balloon was filled with hydrogen. Launch time was recorded at 11:01 a.m.
Rising approximately 800-1,200 foot per minute, the balloon, approximately eight feet in diameter at launch, remained aloft for about two hours, reaching the edge of near space, just as planned. When it finally burst, a parachute deployed and payload descended back through the atmosphere to the earth’s surface.
Descent of the payload to the earth’s surface took about 45 minutes. Team members anxiously tracked the deflated balloon and its payload as it drifted east toward Casa Grande: Where would it land? Nerves jittered as it drifted toward a housing development and two backyard swimming pools came into view on the remote cameras. Would “Venturer” face a soggy, humiliating ‘death by swimming pool’? Could “Death Star” survive a crash landing?
At approximately 1 p.m., recovery beacons alerted the chase team of the payloads’ whereabouts. After a quarter-mile walk across a flat, dirt-covered lot, advance scouts confirmed the assembly had landed in someone’s backyard. Barely missing neighborhood swimming pools, the payloads were intact, their crash landing cushioned by the tangled branches of a mesquite tree.
The students rang the home’s doorbell. After a several minute wait, no one answered. Eager to retrieve the balloon, parachute and payloads, the group proceeded to a neighbor’s house to inform the neighbor they were going into the adjacent back yard, only to find that the owner of the “landing pad” home was, in fact, home – and initially, not pleased when students entered her back yard to retrieve their payloads.
To the relief of project participants, all payloads were safely retrieved and returned to waiting vehicles. Sensors indicated the balloon had reached a maximum horizontal velocity of 152 mph (246 km) and had flown 74.76 miles (120.3 km). Despite the rigors experienced during the flight and subsequent crash-landing, the payload remained intact and performed nominally.
Teams are still in the process of analyzing other data, which will be archived at Pima College.
Many participants were hooked on the experience and have opted to repeat the two-credit-hour project class (ECE-298) in spring semester. Next time, they’ll add more complexity to the experiments.
At the end of the project’s second semester, some of the GCC students will participate in an annual NASA-sponsored symposium, which alternates between Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. This will give them the opportunity to hone their speaking skills, in an environment that includes not just students, but professors and other experts in the field. “Our students learned a lot of things through this project that they wouldn’t have learned in textbooks,” said Schneeg, adding, “They sound like they’ve been in the industry for years; they’re really experts at what they’re talking about.”
But this project is just the beginning for many of these GCC students. Many of these scientists of tomorrow plan to transfer to ASU, some in the civil engineering program, one in structural engineering. For these adventuresome, achievement-oriented students, the sky’s the limit.
Video shows segments on liftoff, at apogee, on the way down, crash-landing in tree and a brief segment of the recovery.