Student team takes research to new heights

Paul Mayne // Western NewsGraduate students Mohammed Chamma (Physics & Astronomy), Matthew Svensson (Earth Sciences) and Alexis Pascual (Engineering) are part of the Western student-led High Altitude Balloon (HAB) Initiative that launched a vehicle from the Canadian Space Agency’s stratospheric balloon base in Timmins, Ont., in August.

It was a launch in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) that took more than their research vehicle to new heights. For a group of Western students, it was a continuing lesson in technology and teamwork.

“It was pretty much our own mission to space,” said Matthew Svensson, an Earth Sciences graduate student and Project Manager for the Western student-led High Altitude Balloon (HAB) Initiative. “It was a way for us to do our own poor-man’s space mission using balloons and some cheap parts.”

Supported by Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, HAB is not related to any coursework. It’s a completely extracurricular program – done for the love of science – that brings together students from a dozen departments in five faculties.

Last year, the group’s inaugural launch of atmospheric sensors and cameras was lost thanks to a GPS error during the ascent phase of the flight. Almost a year later, the project was recovered in a farmer’s field 5 km off-course.

But humble beginnings are what research is all about.

“It’s definitely hard to predict any problems we might have,” said Mohammed Chamma, a Physics & Astronomy graduate student and HAB Assistant Manager. “You can think of thousands of problems that may or may not happen, but you can only solve them one at a time. That’s part of the learning process with something like this.”

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Conducted in collaboration CSA and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space Canada, this year’s endeavor launched a vehicle from the CSA’s Stratospheric Balloon Base in Timmins, Ont., to collect microbial particles from different levels of the atmosphere.

“The idea is to look at the species variations of different kinds of bacteria to see if they are different at different levels of the atmosphere, using it as a way to study the spread of allergens and diseases,” said Svensson, whose teams obtained four samples at 10 km intervals during the 12-hour flight in August.

“The implications are looking at how these microorganisms may or may not have developed some kind of resistance to these super extreme conditions in the upper atmosphere, with low pressure and low temps, and seeing how they survived. It’s not something we’re going to be able to answer right away, but this is the first step into this realm of research for us.”

The samples were put on ice and returned to campus where the team will wait a couple months for them to grow and multiply to a point where they can be analyzed more effectively through a variety of DNA sequencing tests.

“We’ll be looking for different species of bacteria and if it changes or seem to be propagating at specific altitudes,” Svensson said. “That then opens the door to more questions and hypothesis we’ll need to answer.”

Alexis Pascual, an Engineering graduate student and HAB Assistant Mangers, enjoyed the process beyond the project – solving the mechanics of how to build something to collect samples effectively.

“We have to do it in a way that doesn’t contaminate the samples,” he said. “We think what we have is perfect, and that it will work, but when we test it, it doesn’t act the way we need. It may create another problem. But that’s how you learn. That’s research.

“It’s awesome knowing that we, as students, can design our own experiments and, if needed, solve our problems. There is fulfillment for me personally knowing that we have made something. We had to sacrifice a lot of time working on our thesis projects – but it was worth it.”

Chamma applauded the group’s efforts and desires.

“We had a core group this year that was so passionate about working on this space mission. Each brought with them a diverse set of skills,” he said. “While we’re working on the mission, at the same time, we kind of taught each other. I learned from the biologists; I learned from engineers. All things I wouldn’t be learning in my own program. It’s because we’re all together and sharing ideas to figure this out that makes it a success.”

The graduate students credited supervisors who were supportive in letting them spend time on the project, especially as the time involved went from “a few hours a week to slowly ramping up to working on it like 24 hours a day two weeks before the launch,” Chamma said.

For Svensson, the magnitude of the event hit home when the team arrived at the stratospheric balloon base, received their passes and gained access to see so many other experiments being put together by other scientists.

“That’s when it became real and we knew we were active contributing participants with our research,” he said. “It’s definitely a win in our books. It’s been a great experience. Whether or not we find anything, which itself is something, we won’t know for a couple more months, but the fact our experiment operated effectively and collected the samples successfully was the most rewarding part of this experience so far.”