ISU gets balloon project ready for take-off

Okley Gibbs

“Burst! We’ve got burst!” booms the supervisor, “Burst is at — just a sec — at 73,264 feet.”

It may evoke the image of a typical launch day’s hijinks at mission control or an official aerospace agency, but it was really just a scene played out in Iowa State’s Town Engineering on Feb. 8.

Students involved with the ISU portion of the Iowa Space Grant Consortium (ISGC), are helping out with project HABET, the High-Altitude Balloon Experiments in Technology, an engineering and science project which was started in 1993 by the Central Iowa Technical Society.

Originally designed to help amateur radio enthusiasts get a platform in the sky, (helping to reduce their need for multiple repeater units), HABET now resides in the academic world.

Barry Vanek, student director of the HABET project, said the thrust is now very engineering specific. The goal now, according to Vanek, “is to support the performance of science experiments in near space.”

The two scientific payloads planned for the near future include a joint effort with the University of Iowa to probe the troposphere for aerosol contaminants and the “in situ” testing of two mil, which is two thousandths of an inch thick, thin-film solar cells. “In situ” was primarily developed by Frank Jeffrey, a researcher at ISU/Ames Lab’s Microelectronics Research Center.

According to Vanek, the latest mission, which is the 14th mission for the HABET group, was intended primarily “to assess the performance of the new, ‘stripped-down’ basic payload. The payload is a toaster-sized assortment of electronic cards which monitor the pressure and temperature of the surrounding atmosphere.

The operating conditions of any additional payload, and the balloon’s position and altitude via the GPS satellite locating service, continuously transmit the information to the command center in Town Engineering.

At the launch, John Basart, professor of electrical engineering and campus coordinator for ISGC, explained how the flight works.

“The neat thing about using the balloon is that you get a nice smooth ascent so the instrumentation can send back continuous data that you can use,” Basart said.

“The balloon rises until the pressure inside the balloon is greater than the pressure outside, and then it expands until eventually the stress in the balloon material causes it to break. Then when it falls back to the earth, its motion is all helter-skelter, even after the parachute opens, so the data received isn’t as good.”

Bill Byrd, ISGC director, said he and ISU initially got involved with HABET “because we wanted to build spacecraft.”

In August of 1995, another ISU ISGC project flew a microgravity experiment aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor.

But frequent flights into “not-so-near” space proves to be quite a financial strain. But in contrast, Byrd said, “a high-altitude balloon flight costs around $400, and you can learn similar things using balloon-bourne experiments.”

For the students involved, HABET provides an uncommon opportunity to make use of concepts and techniques they’re learning in class, and to get some exciting experience with real-world applications.

Joel Hagen, a senior in electrical and computer engineering, works to help design and maintain the payload.

He also plays a large role in receiving and monitoring the telemetry data and ensuring the successful operation of the digital receiver equipment, as well as helping to engineer the uplink and downlink antennas installed on the roof of Town Engineering.

Freshman Brian Karstens and sophomore Adam Frederick, both students in meteorology, have the opportunity to use some of the basic physics they’ve learned in class, as well as meteorological concepts.

Karstens said even though he is just in his first year, he “gets to use things he’s already learned about wind patterns and the jet stream” to do his job with HABET.

With the aim of having four or five flights per year, ISU’s student-flight operations specialists have plenty of continued opportunity to create more exciting experience.