Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Gemini: Stratospheric Balloon Project

Graham Kirkby, a PhD Satellite Engineering student, has recently launched his second annual Gemini Stratospheric Balloon Project. Students attach a payload to a stratospheric balloon which is then taken to the upper edge of the atmosphere.

Inspirations: Graham came up with his enterprising idea when he was a member of the Astronomical Society. After having read a news article about it, he decided to try it out at the University of Birmingham. Each of the Gemini project’s two balloons took two terms to organise, build and launch!

How did he do it? After Graham secured his funding, he promoted the project through emails and posters. Around 20 students came forwards, mainly from the college of EPS due to the scientific nature of the project. The number of participants in th

is year’s project has also increased through word of mouth.

Students attended an initial meeting to tell them about the project but after that, students carried out their own independent work to get their payload into the stratosphere. Every Monday night, for two terms before the launch, students would attend lab sessions to test out their innovative ideas. Graham would step in if students had any unforeseen problems with their project (e.g. communication between sensors in their payload) but the skills and knowledge they had acquired from their degree were enough to make their project a success.

Students attached a payload (weighing a maximum of 4 kilograms) to the largest weather balloon available. The balloon was designed to pop as a certain altitude, allowing the payload, under the parachute, to land safely. The payloads were experiments the students had designed. For example, one student decided to measure the Earth’s magnetic field. Another student put plants in capsules with solar powered heaters to keep it warm when exposed to the below freezing temperatures of the stratosphere. Once back on the Earth, a biologist will be attempting to grow the plants to discover if there is any radiation damage. Some students did begin working individually but once they realised their ideas would work better together, those with similar ideas began to team up. So, this year, around 5 payloads were launched. Some students who participated in the first balloon project even chose to participate in the second project, in order to use build on their previous results.

An aerial view of the University

Graham was also involved in the formal process of submitting forms and carrying out risk assessments. For example, he had to get permission from the Civil Aviation Authority in order to launch the balloons. Half an hour before he launched the balloons, he even had to contact the flight control tower at Birmingham Airport. The launch date was also contingent on the weather, causing a one-month delay. Once the payload was launched, Graham and the team would drive 2-3 hours to collect the payload. The landing site, which could be anywhere such as a farmer’s field, was detected via GPS.
After the payloads had been collected, students would collate and analyse their date, putting it in a presentable format. The data will then be submitted back to Graham, who is hoping it will be available for all in an archive on Canvas. This means that future students, who are hoping to launch a similar project, will have the necessary resources available for them to do so.

Enterprising skills gained by the students? Students greatly increased their collaborative skills. They worked alongside their teammates to push their ideas forward into a reality. The unstructured nature of the project took the students beyond their degree discipline, allowing them to work alongside students from other courses e.g. Biologists alongside Chemical Engineers. This pooling of knowledge allowed the creation of more advanced and creative payloads.

Enterprising skills gained by Graham? The overall project is useful, hands-on experience for anybody hoping to work with satellites. Graham will soon be beginning his new job in environmental testing with Airbus. The experience of organising and leading such a large project, learning from his mistakes, will be invaluable during his career path ahead.

He told me that the practical experience of operating Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) electronics in such low temperatures will be beneficial for any future flights. The first project was a great learning opportunity for both Graham and the other participants because they learned what did and/or didn’t work well and used this to improve their next attempt.

For more information, visit the Gemini Balloon Project website.

Pavinder Bhangu
- PR Team

No comments:

Post a Comment