Student Experiments Get A Lift From NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

September 7, 2015 – NASA’s Balloon Program Office, in partnership with the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium, launched the High-Altitude Student Platform (HASP) payload at 7:47 a.m. MDT Monday, September 7, from Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

HASP provides students with an opportunity to conduct experiments in a low-cost, near-space environment. The platform, which provides power and downlink for all payloads, is stable when suspended from NASA’s zero-pressure, high altitude balloon and can carry payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to support the students flying these experiments, many of whom are getting their first real taste of hands-on engineering and science,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “Programs like HASP are key to educating, training, and inspiring the next generation.”

This year, HASP carried 12 experiments designed and built by college students from across the nation, including two payloads from the Colorado Space Grant Consortium (COSGC). The experiments flew to an altitude of about 120,000 feet during the mission.

Two payloads built by students with mentorship and support from the Colorado Space Grant Consortium were on today's HASP flight. HELIOS is the gold colored payload just right of center and SIMBA is just to the right of HELIOS in this picture. Image Credit: Colorado Space Grant Consortium

Two payloads built by students with mentorship and support from the Colorado Space Grant Consortium were on today’s HASP flight. HELIOS is the gold colored payload just right of center and SIMBA is just to the right of HELIOS in this picture. Image Credit: Colorado Space Grant Consortium

Colorado Payloads:

HELIOS IV

HELIOS IV. Image Credit: Colorado Space Grant Consortium

HELIOS IV. Image Credit: Colorado Space Grant Consortium

This payload is designed to prove the viability of solar observation on a high altitude balloon platform. Currently, all solar observation is done either from the ground or from orbiting satellites; however, ground observations are subject to extensive atmospheric interference and satellites are extremely expensive. Placing a solar observatory on a high altitude balloon platform mitigates 99.5% of the atmospheric interference, but does so at a fraction of the cost of actually placing it into orbit.

HELIOS uses photodiodes, or light sensors, to determine its position relative to the sun and uses two stepper motors to turn towards the sun. It is flying two cameras: the first, with a field of view of approximately 20°, is used for in-flight photodiode calibration, and the second, with a field of view of approximately 100°, is used for post-flight analysis.

SIMBA

SIMBA. Image Credit: Colorado Space Grant Consortium

SIMBA. Image Credit: Colorado Space Grant Consortium

The Stratospheric Microbe and Bacteria Accumulator (SIMBA) is a small payload designed to collect microorganisms from the stratosphere while simultaneously collecting environmental data on the living conditions of the microbes. SIMBA’s overall mission goal is to collect information on Earth’s stratospheric microorganisms so to better understand the environments in which these microbes live, thrive, and grow.

To collect the microbes, the SIMBA payload will deploy two polycarbonate filters once the platform reaches maximum altitude. The filters will remain exposed to the stratosphere for the duration of the platform float, between 5 and 15 hours, then they will be sealed in a sterilized container before descent. On board the payload are also many environmental sensors including UV, humidity, temperature, and pressure sensors.

After the payload is recovered, the SIMBA team will visually identify the microorganisms down to a genus level using a scanning electron microscope. They will also measure the amount of microbes captured using a DAPI (4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole) stain and a florescent microscope. Once visual identification has been completed and providing that enough microorganisms have been captured, the team will culture the remaining samples in different extreme conditions to test their resilience. This includes conditions such as salt content, light exposure, temperature and humidity.

Today’s launch was the 10th HASP mission since the program’s inception in 2005. Since then, more than 830 students from 34 academic institutions from across 19 states and Puerto Rico have developed HASP experiments for flight on a NASA balloon. The Colorado Space Grant Consortium has successfully flown payloads on the HASP platform every year since 2008.

This was the second of four planned launches during the Fort Sumner campaign. The next balloon launch is scheduled for Friday, September 11, carrying Langley Research Center’s Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X) along with 100 small student experiments flying as part of the Cubes in Space program. In addition, a balloon test flight is planned for September 17 and will carry five mission of opportunity payloads.

Standard NASA balloons are very large structures, some as large as football stadiums when fully inflated, comprised of 10 to 50 acres or more of film that can carry payloads to altitudes above 130,000 feet. Balloon film resembles sandwich bags, but is stronger and more durable.

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia manages the agency’s scientific balloon program with 10 to 15 flights each year from launch sites worldwide.

The Louisiana Space Grant Consortium is part of the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, which supports hands-on, experiential projects for university-level students nationwide.

Orbital ATK provides program management, mission planning, engineering services and field operations for NASA’s scientific balloon program. The program is executed from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas. The Columbia team has launched more than 1,700 scientific balloons in over 35 years of operation.

Participating institutions for the 2015 HASP flight were: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona; University of Minnesota; University of Calgary, Canada; Illinois Institute of Technology; University of Colorado; University of North Dakota; University of North Florida; Gannon University, Pennsylvania; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and Louisiana State University.

Anyone may track the progress of the Fort Sumner flights, which includes a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at:

http://towerfts.csbf.nasa.gov/