Stratospheric balloons allow experiments to soar high in the atmosphere. | SkyNews
Stratospheric balloons allow experiments to soar high in the atmosphere. (NASA)

Students are floating science to the stratosphere via balloons

Stratospheric balloon research will take flight in Timmins in August; local facility expansion will support weatherproof payload integration

Two of three planned university balloon teams will be heading to Timmins, Ontario, this month for a unique research opportunity ahead of a facility expansion.

The StratoNeers (from the University of British Columbia — Okanagan Campus) and AstroBubble (from Carleton University) will send their science to the stratosphere using balloons as soon as August 22; backup windows are available on August 23 and 24 in case of poor weather.

Stratospheric balloons allow experiments to soar high in the atmosphere. | SkyNews
Stratospheric balloons allow experiments to soar high in the atmosphere. (NASA)

“The StratoNeers are testing different cell architectures — planar versus three-dimensional — against bit flips, or single-event upsets (SEUs) caused by solar radiation,” said Megan Rose, CAN-SBX Project Manager for participating organization SEDS-Canada. SEUs are problems that can arise in electronics on satellites during radiation events, causing failures or issues during periods of high exposure.

“Team AstroBubble are testing a new type of radiation sensing device, using cubic nanoparticles that should change shape when exposed to radiation,” Rose added. “Both teams successfully passed their critical design review in June.”

A third team, McGill Space Group, is not participating, but considering a future launch. The students “unfortunately suffered from a reduction in their team size over the summer and were not able to complete their payload in time for the launch,” Rose said.

The remaining two teams are participating in the 2021-22 edition of the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge (CAN-SBX), which we first covered in March. Working with SEDS-Canada, the students will send small scientific payloads aloft a balloon funded by the Canadian Space Agency.

The CSA and the French space agency, Centre national d’études spatiales, have an agreement for stratospheric research, under which CAN-SBX falls.

Timmins’ balloon base

Future competition groups may be able to take advantage of the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base expansion. In late July, the City of Timmins awarded a $4.1 million contract to CGV Builders for a new hall and elevator, meant to allow students and scientists a bit more room for payload integration in any weather condition.

According to Northern Ontario Business, construction should start in September, pending funding arrangements. Because of a CSA letter of intent, the federal government will commit enough money to cover construction costs, but applications to FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund may reduce the federal government’s obligation if those applications succeed.

The August CAN-SBX flight plan calls for the balloon to fly to about 30 kilometres in altitude before bursting, due to the lack of pressure in that area.

“CSA recovery teams will be on site to retrieve the payloads and return to the students for analysis,” Rose said.

Balloons are valuable opportunities to simulate spaceflight, because they are cheaper and easier to launch than a satellite or even a sounding rocket. Given that they fly for longer (hours) than a sounding rocket (minutes), for some experiments considering cumulative exposure at a high altitude the balloons are more advantageous to gather scientific data quickly.

This is the second year SEDS has offered the program. They first launched balloons in November 2021, following a delayed flight campaign for pandemic-related supply chain issues and lab access problems, which many scientific groups faced in 2020 and 2021.

Selection criteria from CSA includes scientific merit, technical feasibility, project management and outreach. The students were assessed on their abilities in project management and publicity all along the way, Rose said.

To watch for the 2022-23 campaign, follow the SEDS-Canada social media feeds or go directly to the SEDS CAN-SBX webpage.

This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.