One year ago today, a team of Western University 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, such was the case 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 (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 and with a snap of a finger, the project was presumed dead.
For weeks, the students searched the potential crash area for the HAB with great assistance from members of the London Amateur Radio Club, like Doug Elliot, Dave McCarter and Tom Pillon, but to no avail.
Out of the blue last week, 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 five (5) km from the projected path and the student scientists were elated.
The HAB Initiative team, which includes Matthew Svensson and Liam Innis from the Department of Earth Sciences, Alexis Pascual from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mohammed Chamma from the Department of Physics & Astronomy, and Paul Salvatore from the Department of Computer Science, are still evaluating data from the mission but have confirmed that the tools packed within the payload successfully measured radiation, carbon dioxide, ozone and ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the stratosphere, as well as captured some extraordinary video footage.
“I’m incredibly excited about this discovery,” says CPSX Director Gordon Osinski. “This kind of interdisciplinary and problem-based research is the way of the future and 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 (SEDS)-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.
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