(Photo Source: HARBOR Onboard Camera) The HARBOR balloon camera captures an image showing the dark blue ozone; light blue breathable gases; and white layer, where commercial airlines fly.
(Source: WSU HARBOR)
The HARBOR balloon camera captures an image showing the dark blue ozone, light blue of the main atmosphere and white layer, where most weather occurs. Commercial airlines fly between the white and light blue area.

The Weber State University High Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research (HARBOR) program has been gathering team members of all majors and interests to help “fly to the edge of space” since Autumn of 2007. HARBOR draws in professors, high school students, undergrads and graduate students alike for year-round planning and mile-high flying.

Dr. John Sohl has been with Weber State for 24 years as a physics professor. Although he has been involved with the HARBOR program since its creation, Sohl did not begin running it until two years ago.

The physics program hosts the balloon research, working closely with electrical engineers and electrical technicians. A common quality among them is a willingness to work in teams and devote time to this project, even if their majors or career fields differ.

HARBOR’s primary goal is to provide a goal-oriented, teamwork-based environment for students. The individual teams must communicate with each other to ensure the pieces will join in a promising way.

“It’s a system that mimics the real world – NASA, those industries,” said Sohl.

The second goal is to better characterize Earth’s atmosphere. HARBOR is currently working on establishing a baseline and looking at the changes that happen in the atmosphere.

To determine these things, sensors are attached as a package to the 10 to 12 foot diameter balloon. They measure movement, temperature, humidity and concentration of aerosols and organic compounds.

The package is also made up of radios, GPS, a parachute, motion and still cameras that are programmed to capture every few seconds and an automatic cut-down device.

By design, the automatic cut-down device will detach the balloon from its package when hit by a force of 50 pounds or more. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires it as an extra safety precaution so physical contact with a plane would sever the parts and not tangle on the aircraft.

“Everything that flies, other than birds and bats, must abide by FAA constraints,” said Sohl. He estimated the HARBOR program contacted the FAA with about 15 calls per flight to give updates and receive permissions.

Because flights must be planned around weather and coordinated with the FAA, air traffic safety and airport planning begins about a year in advance.

The HARBOR flights commonly take off from the Duchesne Airport because of the airport’s size and smaller population. Duchesne Airport also has many oil wells, meaning plenty of roads to help the team reach the balloon’s landing point, as they personally retrieve each one.

The flight paths of the one-time-use balloons are predicted using software designed by two high school students. It uses weather predictions to map out the route they think the balloon will travel, so they can contact the landowner and travel to retrieve it.

Predicted flight patterns are not particularly accurate until about 10 days before takeoff, because weather could potentially change dramatically before then. HARBOR’s next flight is scheduled for July 19, 2014.

As a thought for environmental preservation, the balloons are made of latex and designed to stay in one piece even after bursting. Some small pieces still escape, but because latex is biodegradable, it is not extremely harmful.

Funding for the program comes from the Browning Foundation, Clark Foundation, WSU Office of Undergraduate Research and other organizations.

Since these organizations often fund junior high and high school students, HARBOR is working on public relations spiels to attract younger kids.

In August, the annual “Balloon Bananza,” seven days of research, is planned to take place.

Another special mission was the “Bugmobile.” Microbes were attached to a package and exposed to the upper atmosphere for a few moments, then brought back to examine their reactions. It was not entirely successful the first time, so it will fly again.

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