As spring solidifies its grasp on Utah, and seniors across the state prepare to launch their graduation caps jubilantly into the air, a small group of Weber State University students are making adjustments, finalizing calculations and preparing for a launch of their own.
On April 19, the High-Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research (HARBOR) program will launch its atmospheric weather balloon to gather data and record measurements from Earth’s atmosphere. The balloon, equipped with a multisensor array, is capable of measuring temperature, atmospheric air pressure, magnetic fields, ozone concentration and more at heights as high as 34 kilometers.
“The moment of launch is always a rush,” said John Sohl, a WSU physics professor and faculty adviser for the program. “Once it leaves the ground, there is no turning back, no second guessing; you are committed, and if it doesn’t work, then there is nothing you can do about it now. So you hold your breath, cross your fingers and let your equipment slip out of your reach on the way into the sky.”
The launch will coincide with the Global Space Balloon Challenge, an international outreach and collaboration project, and will incorporate photos and data gathered from balloon teams across the world. Working with WSU students, as well as others from the University of Utah and surrounding high schools, HARBOR hopes to test new equipment designed over the winter and expose newcomers to the balloon flight.
“Many hours of work have been invested by numerous students and faculty,” Sohl said. “In the end, you don’t fully know what is going to happen, and you always want to spend just a little more time adjusting the code, improving the hardware, etc., but whatever the situation is, that is what is now on the way to the edge of space.”
The HARBOR project, which is modeled after NASA flights, recently received a Dee Family Technology grant for $6,000 to purchase an ozone calibration system that will be used to certify instruments before the upcoming flight.
“This is an important improvement for this year,” Sohl said. “Once we do this, our ozone data can be logged to the international ozone database. There are almost no data points for more than a decade about the ozone in situ (in place) for most of the United States.”
Michael Petersen, an electronics engineering major at WSU, has devoted over 1,000 hours to the project, and has been accepted for an internship with Northrop Grumman, a leading aerospace and defense technology company, as a result of his work.
“This has been an extremely rewarding and gratifying experience,” Petersen said. “I can say that it surpasses all of the labs I have ever taken, hands down. I cannot stress enough how amazing this experience has been.”
The launch is scheduled for approximately 9:30 a.m., weather permitting, at Duchesne Municipal Airport.
“When I first heard of the balloon launch, I was a little skeptical because I didn’t know how serious the students were about their work,” said Aaron Bott, a WSU English major. “But now that I’ve learned more about it, it sounds pretty legit, and I’m thinking it’s going to be awesome.”
Those interested in the flight can monitor its progress live at Planet.weber.edu/harbor/FlightStatus.htm.