On Saturday, September 29th, a team of Penn State Wilkes-Barre engineering students and professors successfully launched a high-altitude balloon 94,625 ft. into the overcast stratosphere.
Vice President of the Engineering Club David Cantoran described the experience as astonishing.
"I believe more people should experience it [the balloon launch]," said Cantoran. "Overall, I would call the launch extremely successful and I enjoyed being part of Dr. Lozano's team."
Dr. Albert Lozano-Nieto, Director of Academic Affairs and Professor of Engineering, funded by a grant supported by the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, works with students to design, implement, track and recover high altitude balloons. The first launch occurred in the fall of 2010 and Lozano was eager to gather more data.
"Unfortunately, jet-stream conditions last fall, along with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, grounded the project last year," explains Lozano. "This year I had an incredibly eager group of students participating."
Once the balloon was launched and started traveling through the atmosphere, the group was able to observe the currents of wind which carried the balloon. The balloon was not visible due to overcast conditions but was able to be tracked in real-time by its GPS coordinates. Once the balloon burst, the group began tracking the descent, watching as it seemed to hover above a large lake just several hundred yards above ground level.
Although predicted to land approximately 50 miles away in Waymart, the balloon fell short near Scranton in a private resident's oak tree. Dr. Lozano is currently requesting permission from the landowner to let him hire a tree climber to extract the balloon cargo.
"For this project to be successful there was a great deal of preparation all around that went into the launch," explains student Brendan Rinehimer. "I was given the responsibility of familiarizing myself with the hardware components as well as the software involved with tracking the balloon and interpreting the data. I began testing the command module to ensure that the unit was functioning properly and transmitting valid data."
Another student participant, Erin Hartmann, observed, "I had heard a little bit about high altitude balloon launches before and the whole process seemed pretty simple: launch a balloon in the air. What I didn't know is that is actually quite complex. You need to call in to say that you are doing it, you need to have the appropriate amount of gas in the balloon, you need to predict where it will land, you need to follow it on GPS, and the list goes on."
Although the launches are research to Dr. Lozano, his hope is that the students walk away with much more than the literal lesson.
"In order for the launch to be successful, the students are required to work together in a team and rely on each other in ways that can't be taught in a classroom," says Lozano.
From all accounts, the technique is working. Engineering student Nick Patel gives his summation of the launch as, "The balloon launch gave me a sense of how engineers work as a team with all the technology available today to apply their knowledge on real life projects."