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High schoolers and UNH will send a balloon to the edge of space

Last modified: 11/20/2015 1:05:19 AM
If you see a giant balloon carrying a weirdly colored object over I-89 on Saturday morning, don’t be alarmed: It’s just science.

“It’s basically the same big pink monster,” said Charles Smith, a research professor at the University of New Hampshire Space Science Center, regarding the payload that will be lifted almost 20 miles, up to near-space, by a weather balloon Saturday. The launch, featuring students from three high schools working with UNH researchers, is scheduled to happen around 10 a.m., probably at the park-and-ride at Exit 11 in New London.

That’s not certain, however. Weather patterns may force the launch site closer to Vermont, so the west-to-east winds won’t push the balloon into the ocean as it returns from its adventure.

“The weather models have us coming down right on the coast, and the margin of error is not very good,” Smith said Thursday, sounding slightly worried.

The launch will be the latest under UNH’s Project SMART, which stands for Science and Mathematics Achievement through Research Training. It brought high school juniors and seniors to the Durham campus each summer for decades to get their hands dirty for scientific purposes.

High-altitude balloon launches have been part of the program since 2009, carrying various radiation detectors aloft. Students, under the direction of high school teachers, help design the experiment, as well as assisting with the launch, recovery and data analysis.

Saturday’s launch includes students from Timberlane High School in Plaistow, Coe-Brown Academy in Northwood and Londonderry High School.

The “big pink monster” is a contraption made of pink styrofoam that holds a detector. It was developed by Lou Broad, a physics teacher at Timberlane, and others on the SMART team after more traditionally shaped payloads had issues.

Broad was inspired by coffee filters to create a cone-shaped container, which automatically rights itself due to air pressure as it falls, preventing the tumbling that can wrap up parachutes and lead to problems.

In 2012, one of the containers fell 105,000 feet after its parachute failed, but was recovered safely in a Massachusetts back yard, payload intact.

Smith said Saturday’s balloon will carry a prototype of a gamma-ray detector being developed by UNH professor Peter Bloser. It’s a small object – “The whole board is about half the size of your hand; the detector is a chip” – which is part of the issue.

The payload is lighter than in previous experiments, so the flight has the potential to reach 120,000 feet. That’s good, except that it makes it far more likely that the balloon would have drifted over the ocean by the time it bursts due to low atmospheric pressure.

Gamma rays are the most potent of the various cosmic rays that hit the planet, although most of them are blocked by the atmosphere – hence the need for high-altitude flights to gather data.

“Gamma rays are notoriously difficult to measure. They have a lot of energy, so they require a lot of mass to stop them,” Smith said.

Bloser’s detector uses a system called a scintillator “that doesn’t stop them but records them when they pass through.” Saturday’s launch will be one of many tests of the prototype as it is developed.

The launch will happen in collaboration with SpaceWeather.com. Some California high school students have flown out here and will be launching a similar balloon carrying a dosimeter, a device that measures radiation exposure. At the same time, an identical balloon and dosimeter will be launched in California, allowing a comparison of radiation effects in the upper atmosphere.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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