Near Space Balloon Launches Freshmen into Undergraduate Research at HPU

HIGH POINT, N.C., June 16, 2015 – Three High Point University freshman pre-engineering and physics majors got an early start in the undergraduate research experience as they assisted with launching a high-altitude balloon to the edge of space.

Students Graham Rich, Max Maurer and Drew Bennett were part of a team of local scientists and computer programmers who launched the balloon from RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville. It ascended to an altitude of approximately 80,000 feet before bursting and landing in Hurdle Mills almost two hours later.

While soaring in the sky, a network of mini computers and cameras captured photos and videos of the Earth’s horizon while sensors collected useful information about the atmosphere and the balloon’s flight pattern.

The photo, taken by one of the cameras in the balloon’s cargo, shows the view of the Earth from the edge of space.

The photo, taken by one of the cameras in the balloon’s cargo, shows the view of the Earth from the edge of space.

The balloon launch was organized by members of team “Near Space Circus,” a collaboration of the Python Piedmont Triad Users Group, Inmar and the HPU Department of Physics, as part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge. This is an effort by more than 300 teams from 48 countries to explore ways of developing the capabilities of small, unmanned balloons and making them even more viable platforms for scientific investigation and technological advancement.

The HPU students contributed to the project by creating two sensor boards to measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, acceleration and the Earth’s magnetic field. These sensors made it possible to track the balloon’s movements and location while learning more about its altitude and the water vapor content of the atmosphere. Additionally, Rich developed the computer code that powered the pressure sensor’s measurements. He also analyzed data collected by the sensors after the balloon was retrieved.

The project helped the students gain practical research experience and gave them the opportunity to network with professionals from science, technology, engineering and math career fields.

“The physics faculty at HPU believes in helping students prepare for future careers from the moment they arrive on campus,” says Dr. Martin DeWitt, assistant professor of physics. “This project gave our freshmen a starting point for gaining valuable research experience outside the classroom. It also helped them start building their professional networks by meeting and working alongside professional engineers and computer scientists. These components will give them a competitive advantage as they look toward future jobs and graduate programs in STEM fields.”

DeWitt says HPU’s Department of Physics plans to continue its involvement in the project by having incoming physics majors take part in the research each year. During the next launch, students will likely experiment with sensors to measure carbon monoxide or ozone gas levels in the atmosphere.

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