UBCO students compete in weather balloon design challenge

Weather balloon challenge

A pair of University of British Columbia Okanagan students who launched an atmospheric weather balloon last fall were extra curious after they heard the American government was shooting down balloons suspected of spying.

Lake Country’s Nolan Koblischke, a fourth-year physics student, and Leonardo Caffarello are both part of a UBCO physics and engineering team that launched a balloon to the stratosphere from a space centre in the Swedish Arctic last fall. The team, sponsored by School of Engineering Professor Jonathan Holzman, launched the balloon for a physics experiment to observe cosmic rays.

"We weren't worried about our balloon being shot down. It did drift into Norway but thankfully the Norwegians didn’t mind," Koblischke says.

Atmospheric balloons are considered an important tool for gathering precise information high above the earth in zones where people couldn’t survive unless they were wearing pressurized suits. The balloons are important to the scientific and academic community.

Koblischke says many people would be surprised at how much you can learn from a balloon, "these atmospheric balloons are a powerful and versatile tool for scientific research and exploration. Our balloon was launched in collaboration with Canadian and European agencies, so we were joined by other university and government agency teams from different countries."

Most of the applications are weather-related. For example, an Italian team tested solar panels in the upper atmosphere to be used on satellites, a German space agency studied stratospheric chemistry and a Hungarian team was testing radiation sensors. There was also an experiment to carry a telescope for atmosphere-free observations of space.

Koblischke and Caffarello have also taken part in the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge. In fact, the UBCO student-led project was one of two experiments selected to fly onboard a high-altitude research balloon launched by the Canadian Space Agency in August 2019. That balloon remained airborne at about 120,000 feet for 10 hours.

"The project was working on a cosmic ray detection system and they were looking for different cosmic particles across the lower atmosphere," says Caffarello, who has since graduated but led the team on their latest experiment which took place in Sweden last fall.

"We learned how to devise and construct an experiment that can withstand the severe conditions of near vacuum and extreme temperatures," Caffarello says.

The team called the UBCO StratoNeers are once again taking part in the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge.

"The StratoNeers are testing hardware protective techniques to mitigate the occurrence of bit flips due to cosmic radiation in computer binary code. This experiment would provide new insights into protective techniques to safely store data onboard satellites, rovers and space telescopes," said Koblischke.

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