UC Berkeley students launch high-altitude balloon with NASA experiments in tow

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UC Berkeley students are challenging the notion that balloons are just for parties — on March 4, Space Technologies at Cal, or STAC, successfully launched a high-altitude balloon, or HAB, 101,000 feet into the stratosphere, conducting one experiment for a Berkeley lab and two experiments for NASA in the process.

STAC is a student-run space research group that conducts research in conjunction with campus science departments and outside organizations such as NASA, according to club president and campus junior Travis Brashears.

“I would say we’re one of the few or first ones to do it for research purposes,” Brashears said regarding the balloon launch. “Most student programs are just for learning and getting photos.”

The HAB carried out three experiments — one from a campus lab and two from NASA units based in California — through  a “payload” container attached to the balloon. Each experiment contained a bacterial sample to observe the effects of harsh atmospheric conditions on bacteria.

The inaugural balloon launch, however, was not without its hiccups. Of the two bacterial samples obtained from NASA, one was lost during the three-hour flight, according to Brashears.

As for the everyday applications of balloon research, project lead and campus junior Abhishyant Khare said there are many, including aerial hotspots to provide Wi-Fi to rural areas and weather balloons that predict storm patterns.

“Such balloons are released twice a day at the Oakland airport and at some 70-plus other sites across the continental U.S.,” said professor David Romps, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Center at UC Berkeley. “They provide invaluable data on temperature and humidity that are used to forecast the weather. These types of balloons get about a third the way to space.”

Balloon research is a growing field, as Google has created a subdivision named “Project Loon” to send internet to rural areas, according to Khare.

In the coming months, STAC plans to start launching balloons once every two months, with each HAB carrying a different set of experiments from Berkeley labs.

“We want to create an ongoing balloon project that gets people excited about space on campus,” Brashears said. “People don’t talk about this much here at Berkeley.”

Beyond balloon research, STAC is reaching higher altitudes with other projects focused on going all the way out to space. In collaboration with NASA, STAC is working on a “rover” project to reach the moon. If completed, this project would send an autonomous rover vehicle to explore the surface of the moon. Brashears said STAC hopes to eventually establish a permanent space program at UC Berkeley.

“An incremental approach of getting further away,” Brashears said. “That’s what we’re doing at STAC — getting to different levels of altitude.”

Contact Miyako Iwata at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dailycalmiyako.