MSU Students Find Success 84,000 Feet Above Earth

Montana State University students have found a way to gather more information from the edge of space, a historic feat they plan to share with students across the country, according to officials with the Montana Space Grant Consortium. The accomplishment that could result in a nation-wide study of a solar eclipse proved itself when students launched a high-altitude helium weather balloon from the Harlowton Airport on April 19, said Berk Knighton, flight director for the consortium’s BOREALIS program. As high-altitude, helium-filled weather balloons rise, they expand as air pressure decreases. A latex weather balloon the size of a Volkswagen Beetle on the ground can stretch to the size of a small house at 100,000 feet. When the balloon eventually pops, the scientific instruments it carries plummet back to Earth where they are retrieved and their data extracted. Until the MSU student innovations, there was no way to make a balloon “hover” in the atmosphere. For the scientific instruments onboard, it was a quick trip up and a quick trip down. Now, because of the student-built valve that releases helium, balloons won’t pop automatically as they near the upper limits of the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, the balloons will hover at an altitude of the students’ choosing. The balloon that was launched from Harlowton hovered at an altitude of 84,000 feet for 15 minutes and could have gone much longer, Knighton said. Because of student-designed computer systems, the students told the balloon how long and high to fly before commanding a tiny tethered dart to pop the latex. “We believe this is the first time that a student-designed device of this type was used to achieve float,” Knighton said. The MSU achievement will allow students to conduct new experiments because they will have more time to collect data from the near-space environment, Knighton said. At 84,000 feet, MSU’s balloon was above 98 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. MSU students typically use latex weather balloons to gather information about such things as radiation, temperature and pressure.

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