Students land project – after a lost year

Special to Western NewsWestern’s High Altitude Balloon team prepares balloon for launch shortly after 4 p.m. on May 29, 2018.

One year ago today, a team of Western graduate students launched a high-altitude balloon (HAB) 20 km into space with the lofty goal of studying the Earth’s stratosphere to get a better sense of what microbial life could be living there.

The launch was a success.

The retrieval not so much – at least until last week.

Shortly after lift-off at 4 p.m. on May 29, 2018, the student-led team from Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) headed off from their launch site at River Place Park in Ayton, Ont. towards Belwood Lake Conservation Area in Fergus, Ont., about 70 km away, where the balloon was planned to touch down.

They were chasing the balloon’s Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking system to recapture their prized project with its payload of facts, findings and footage. During descent, the signal was lost. In the snap of a finger, the project was presumed dead.

For weeks, the students searched the potential crash area for the HAB with assistance from members of the London Amateur Radio Club, like Doug Elliot, Dave McCarter and Tom Pillon, but to no avail.

Then last week, almost a year to the day from its launch, Elliot received a call from a farmer, who found a ‘strange’ orange box (the payload) attached to a deflated balloon in his field complete with invaluable contact information. The HAB was recovered approximately 5 km from the projected path and the student scientists were elated.

The HAB initiative team – Earth Sciences students Matthew Svensson and Liam Innis, Electrical and Computer Engineering student Alexis Pascual, Physics & Astronomy student Mohammed Chamma and Computer Science student Paul Salvatore – are still evaluating data from the mission. They have confirmed, however, that the tools packed within the payload successfully measured radiation, carbon dioxide, ozone and ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphere, as well as captured some extraordinary video footage.

“I’m incredibly excited about this discovery,” said Gordon Osinski, CPSX Director. “This kind of interdisciplinary and problem-based research is the way of the future; it’s been amazing to watch this group of students learn and grow throughout this process.”

The students are now planning their next launch, in collaboration with the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space-Canada and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), to sample microbial aerosols with a much larger stratospheric balloon. The launch is scheduled for August in Timmins, Ont.