The Catholic University of America

Aug. 11, 2014

Students Prepare to Launch Project into Space

For the past eight months, members of a multidisciplinary team of Catholic University undergraduates have been hard at work researching, building, and testing a 29-inch-tall machine that can track its surroundings, take photos, and self-regulate its temperature. Now, they are ready for their next step: launching their project into space, with the help of a large high altitude NASA research balloon.

  Catholic University students (from left) Fernando Esteves, Raissa Silva, Victor Casarotto, and Fabio Matubara traveled to Palestine, Texas, earlier this summer to integrate their payload into a larger load for launch this month.

The project is part of NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Program (USIP), in which student teams build experiments that are then launched into space on NASA suborbital platforms like rockets, balloons, aircraft, zero-g aircraft, and suborbital reusable launch vehicles. The program is sponsored by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and is intended to promote student interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Catholic University was one of 10 college and university teams in the United States selected for USIP’s initial year. The CUA team — led by Ekaterina Verner, a research scientist for the University’s Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences — will launch its experiment later this month using a large NASA research balloon with a volume of 20 to 30 million cubic feet corresponding to diameter larger than half a football field.

The project began last October with 14 students from several majors, including engineering, biology, and physics. The 100 pound CUA experiment is computer-operated and includes a camera, a hard drive, a power regulator, a pressure vessel, special sensors that measure temperature, and a heating system.

If all goes well, the payload carrying the CUA experiment, will rise to an altitude of 125,000 feet (more than 23 miles) and stay aloft for more than six hours before parachuting to earth. While in space, the box will record data and photos for later analysis.

As part of the project, students visited NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore this spring, where they met with engineers who showed them satellite stations and launching areas and taught them about the NASA research balloons.

The team's payload, which they designed and built over the course of eight months, can take photos, track its surroundings, and self-regulate its temperature.  

In July, four students traveled to Palestine, Texas, to integrate their system with the rest of the payload the balloon will be carrying. Weather permitting; the launch of the balloon will take place Aug. 15 from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Verner and students will travel to New Mexico beforehand to calibrate the payload. After the payload lands, a team of scientists will retrieve it so students can analyze the collected data.

Constructing the experimental package required students to use all their skills, from computing and engineering to communication and money management, Verner said. She believes students also learned the value of teamwork.

“It’s a big project and it’s not possible for it to be done by one person,” she said. “It’s very important that they learn to work as a team and increase their multidisciplinary skills. The skills they learned could be applicable in different areas eventually whether they go into computers or electrical design or mechanical design.”

Preparing the CUA experiment for launch has been a time-consuming project, requiring several students to work through much of the summer. Now Verner said the team is eager to find out how the payload will perform and what data it will collect.

“I think I made the students a little bit tired, especially the team that worked very hard with integration, but after they finished I saw a great satisfaction in their eyes,” she said. “I don’t think they have ever experienced anything like this before.”

UPDATE 8/18/2014: Due to weather delays, the payload is now expected to launch Wednesday, Aug. 20.




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