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Flying high: Students launch payloads on weather balloons

Experiment studies how radiation and high altitudes affect seeds


View from above of a group of people and cars in a desert area prepping a large white balloon.
April 04, 2023

On a bright and early Saturday morning, a group of Arizona State University students gathered in a remote desert area, just west of Quartzite, Arizona. 

Their reason for being there? To launch two large weather balloons that can carry a payload (mechanically and thermally stable containers) near the edge of space so the students can study how high altitudes affect a variety of objects — in this case, lettuce seeds.

The students are part of ASU chapter of ASCEND (Aerospace Scholarships to Challenge and Educate New Discoverers), an Arizona Space Grant program that engages undergraduate students across the state in the full “design-build-fly-operate-analyze” cycle of a space mission. 

They were joined by volunteers from Arizona Near Space Research, an affiliate of ASCEND that helps coordinate balloon launches.

The students prepared two different seed packets for the payloads — one on the outside that will be exposed to high-altitude radiation and one on the inside that will just be exposed to the high altitude — to see how both the altitude and radiation exposure affects the seeds.

Two students prepping a payload in a car for a high-altitude weather balloon

Aerospace engineering student Quang Huy Dinh (right) and mechanical engineering student Arlene Morales (left) help prep the payload prior to the balloon launch outside Quartzite, Arizona, on April 1.

Student wearing hard hat and ASU sweatshirt holds a weather balloon payload

Exploration systems design student Elizabeth Garayzar holds the weather balloon payload before the launch on April 1.

Man and female student set up payload for weather balloon.

Professor Tom Sharp, in the School Of Earth and Space Exploration, and computer science undergraduate student Genevieve Cooper prep the payload for the weather balloon launch.

Hands tapping container of seeds on top of payload

Cooper attaches lettuce seeds on the outside of the payload that will be exposed to radiation during the weather balloon experiment.

Students and volunteers prep weather balloon for a launch in the desert

People holding large weather balloon up

ASU students and volunteers from the Arizona Near Space Research group prep the helium weather balloon during the ASCEND launch outside of Quartzsite, Arizona, on April 1.

Students hold up the payload tethered to the balloon as it launches

Students hold up the payload as it launches with the weather balloon on April 1.

Students look to the sky as a weather balloon takes off

Students watch as a payload and weather balloon take off. The balloons traveled upward of 100,000 feet before popping and parachuting back down to Earth in the Harcuvar Mountains Wilderness.

Photos by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University

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