COC students launch scientific balloon into space as part of NASA project

Canyons Hall at College of the Canyons (Source: COC)
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This week, a team of students from College of the Canyons (COC) launched a scientific balloon and payload into space as part NASA’s High Altitude Student Platform (HASP).

The HASP carries 12 student payloads to an altitude of 35 kilometers with flight durations lasting from six to 25 hours using a small-volume, zero-pressure balloon, according to the HASP website.

This is the second year in a row COC was selected to participate in the project and marked the fifth time a community college participated in the program during its 10-year history.

Overall, the HASP program’s goal is to foster student excitement toward an aerospace career path through a “space test platform” that uses scientific balloons to test student satellites, prototypes or fly other small experiments.

“We are the fifth community college to ever participate in this program and we were the only ones to participate in for a second year,” said Teresa Ciardi, faculty advisor for the COC HASP team and faculty member in the college’s Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences Department.  “Our students were so professional that they invited us to apply again.”

This year’s team of COC students included students from last year’s HASP as well as new students.  The group of 12, led by a leadership team of five students, spent nearly nine months and more than 300 hours perfecting their HASP and payload.

On Monday, the COC team joined 12 other university groups from around the country to launch their payloads into space from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, N.M.

The team spent Sunday night and early Monday morning monitoring the balloon’s progress and sending commands to their payload as part of a final pre-flight operational test.

They then spent the next 24 hours communicating with one another and monitoring pressure, current draw, temperature and a variety of systems in the payload, according to Ciardi.

The team also created a schedule to alternate duties and rest in between, but some students were so excited that they did not plan to sleep at all.

COC’s payload consisted of an Electrostatic Cosmic Dust Collector (EDC) that would collect “transient passive IDPs (Interstellar Dust Particles) through the principle of electrostatic precipitation,” according to the college’s page on the HASP website.

The payload was based on an enhanced design from last year’s HASP project that included an optical sensor.

“We added a sensor, a funnel that sent particles to an optical sensor and pinged us when particles were impacted,” Ciardi said.  “The new model worked and we were able to see how many dust were impacted the sensor.”

The payload also included a box that was supposed to open and collect Interstellar Dust Particles (IDPs) when the balloon reached an altitude of 120,000 feet; however, it didn’t all go according to plan.

“The problem that we had was with our actual collector box.  Every time a command was sent to charge the copper plate to draw particles in the box would close,” Ciardi said.  “So they’d shut down the plate, close the box and try again… We spent 12 hours trouble shooting, reaching out to other teams who had payloads on the platform.”

In the end the team decided to leave the box open as a passive collector.

“It’s sometimes better than if everything goes according to plan,” Ciardi said.  “The students learned a lot because their payload failed.”

They also learned what actual NASA scientists work with and do on a daily basis as they problem solve and trouble shoot in the moment.

In an email between Director of NASA HASP Dr. T. Gregory Guzik and COC Student Leader Daniel Tikhomirov, Guzik praised the COC team for their efforts to fix the payload and collaborate with other teams.

“Excellent work in diagnosing your problem and coming up with a workaround.  That is real ‘rocket scientist’ or, as I would say, ‘balloon scientist’ stuff,” Guzik said in his email to Tikhomirov.

Ciardi said it was also a highlight for her to see the students grow and work collaboratively together as a team to solve the problem and find a way to “get the payload to do something special.”

She also said the college’s participation in HASP shows the academic level students at the community college are at.

“We have some of the best and the brightest getting their first two years done and thus being able to do these incredible projects,” Ciardi said.

[email protected]
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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