Giant balloon carrying ASU cameras invades Earth's stratosphere


It doesn’t take a sky-high budget to conduct aerospace research, thanks to weather balloons and a little ingenuity.

Teams of students from across Arizona, including a team from Arizona State University, launched their unmanned research balloons as part of the Arizona Space Grant Consortium’s ASCEND program, short for Aerospace Scholarships to Challenge and Educate New Discoverers. The launch took place March 27 in Pinal County West Park in Maricopa.

Every semester student teams design and build payloads for launch on high-altitude weather balloons. About 10 feet in diameter when inflated, these hardy balloons can reach altitudes of more than 100,000 feet – higher than a passenger plane – yet can be built on a shoe-string budget.

This semester, a team of 12 ASU students put together a research payload to collect panoramic video and thermal imaging data. Instead of rockets, boosters and expensive control systems, they filled a weather balloon with hydrogen and hung a carbon fiber box underneath to carry the cameras and sensing equipment.

The balloon and camera made it up high enough to see the black sky curling around our blue planet, a staggering 94,687 feet. The flight was approximately three hours. When the balloon burst, the payload took about 45 minutes to come back to Earth, landing about 5.7 miles from the launch site.

ASU/NASA Space Grant provides funding to the ASU ASCEND team for payload materials and travel expenses. The payload cost roughly $1,000. The Arizona Near Space Research provides the balloons for the launch. Launch costs typically run around $5,000, including the “extras,” such as GPS beacons.

“As the team leader, I was required to manage the logistics of a complex project, making sure all systems work together in the final product. Having done this before, I have the opportunity to pass on the lessons I’ve learned to others on the team,” said Jack Lightholder, a paid ASU/NASA Space Grant intern and veteran balloon launcher.

Part of the Arizona Space Grant Consortium Workforce Development program, ASCEND is designed to engage undergraduate students in the full “design-build-fly-operate-analyze” cycle of a space mission.

“This program gives students the experience of developing an experimental question, developing a payload design to test it, building said payload and analyzing the data. The dataset will also be used for some baseline testing of other instruments within SESE labs,” Lightholder said. This was his seventh launch.

The ASCEND team is led by Tom Sharp, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Arizona Space Grant Consortium’s associate director. This year’s members include: Jack Lightholder, SG intern/team lead, computer science; Mason Denney, SG intern/team lead, computer systems engineering; Tyler McKinney, aerospace engineering; Ines Weber, physics; Clelia Tommi, astrobiology; Trevor Van Engelhoven, astrophysics; Vishal Ghorband, electrical engineering; Jefferson Fleing, aerospace engineering; Claeren Mapili, aerospace engineering; Zach Burnham, electrical engineering; John Gehrke, aerospace engineering; Mateo Orama, mechanical engineering.