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

Students to send high-flying experiments aloft this summer

A stratospheric balloon experiment challenge simulates the conditions of space

Three Canadian student teams are getting ready for a high-flying opportunity.

The 2021-22 edition of the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge (CAN-SBX) will send small scientific payloads from Timmins, Ontario, into space aboard a stratospheric balloon funded by the Canadian Space Agency.

These balloons are excellent analogues for space experiments, because they fly high enough in the atmosphere to avoid air that interferes with astronomical observations. The experiments are also exposed to radiation, cosmic rays and other space phenomena that are common threats for spacecraft.

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

Moreover, balloons are not only cheaper to launch than a space mission, but can persist for hours and sometimes days or weeks in the atmosphere, allowing for long-range studies for relatively little money spent.

Bringing the students into this field early in their career “cannot possibly be overstated” in terms of the educational value, said Megan Rose, CAN-SBX Project Manager for participating organization SEDS-Canada.

SEDS is the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and Rose noted that space, unlikely a classroom, cannot have its variables controlled in the same way.

“When we do a project like this, you’re subjected to a vast amount of variables that can have a huge impact on your project, which you have no control over. And I think it’s really interesting to see how the students work with these different variables,” Rose said.

Last year, the first year SEDS did this, the balloon launched in November and had a hard and delayed timeline to get in the air.

“We had students who were running into supply chain issues, and they couldn’t get the parts that they needed for their projects. We had students who weren’t able to access the labs at their schools because of the pandemic policies at their school. And then on the [space] side, we had regulatory issues with the time of year and the locations that we wanted to launch it. We ended up having to move the launch a few weeks ahead of time, to a different province entirely,” Rose noted.

The competition calls for students to build, design and launch their own payloads. The selected teams are:

  • Team AstroBubble from Carleton University, which is “testing the feasibility of sensing cosmic radiation, using plasmonic nanoparticles — metallic particles with unique optical properties of efficiently absorbing and scattering light,” SEDS Canada wrote in a press release;
  • Team StratoNeers from the University of British Columbia Okanagan, which is “testing hardware protective techniques to mitigate the occurrence of bit flips due to cosmic radiation in computer’s binary code;”
  • McGill Space Group from McGill University, which “is studying the flux of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from seasonal forest fires.”

One of the selection criteria is that the CSA’s focus areas had to be taken into account as part of the scientific merit package. While all of these projects scored well in that merit, the McGill group is notable as CSA wants to launch a WildFireSat to monitor all active wildfires in Canada from space, every three days. WildFireSat is planned to launch no earlier than 2027.

Other evaluation criteria included technical feasibility and project management and outreach. Rose said students were also required to have a plan to pull the project together, to get the project launched on time and to publicize efforts for other students and the general public.

More opportunities to get on board are forthcoming as the CSA is expanding their balloon launch program.

“They want to be doing more launches, so we’ve been working with them to try and increase that [frequency] when we can,” Rose said.

To keep an eye for next year’s opportunities, watch the SEDS social media feeds or go directly to the SEDS CAN-SBX web page.

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