Spring 2008 Issue

Up in the Air
New Heights for Amateur Radio

Near Space Workshop

By Bill Brown, WB8ELK

Workshop payloads ready for takeoff. Left to right: Susahnah Beardall, Jackie Beardall, Bill Brown WB8ELK, Brian Tanner, Martin Baier, Dyllin Kinman, and Andrew Kinman. (Photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted)

I recently had the pleasure of teaching a two-day workshop at Purdue University’s Columbus, Indiana campus, showing students how to design experiments for high-altitude balloon flights. Organized by Brian Tanner from TMG Labs of Carmel, Indiana and Assistant Professor Margaret Ratcliff from Purdue University, the workshop was made possible with funding by the NASA Indiana Space Grant Consortium.

We had nearly a dozen students in attendance for this session, ranging from middle school to college age, including a mom and her three home-schooled children who saw the event posted in the local paper. Everyone seemed fascinated by how inexpensively they could explore the very edge of space, and I could see science fair possibilities churning in their minds.

Keeping students of such a wide age range interested proved to be a challenge, but this was easily solved by some quick shopping at the local grocery store. Since it was near Easter, I stocked up on some multi-colored Easter Peep candies and some plastic eggs and told them we were going to send Peeps into space. I put the younger students to work designing space capsules to study the effects of heat and the vacuum of near space on their “Peep-o-nauts.”

The older students were happily engaged in programming film and video cameras, installing dataloggers, setting up amateur radio GPS trackers, and stuffing it all into their Styrofoam payloads (photo 1). I discovered that mechanical engineering students actually carry most of their tools with them at all times, as we shortly had a room full of drills, saws, and wrenches, most of which were carried in their coat pockets.

Near Space Photography

We flew three RCA Small Wonder video cameras and in addition, four Canon A560 and A570IS digital still cameras pointing up, down, and at the horizon (photo 2). The neat thing about the Canon series is that a few folks have come up with BASIC programmable scripts that you put onto the camera’s removable memory card and they program your camera to do timed interval shots and can control just about every feature of the camera. We set up our cameras to take a still picture every 30 seconds for the entire duration of the flight. This camera hack is called CHDK (http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page) and can be used with a wide variety of Canon digital cameras. Rick von Glahn, NØKKZ, of the Edge of Space Sciences balloon group, has an excellent web page and video clip showing exactly how to program the Canon A570IS, which includes his program to automatically control the camera for balloon flights (http://www.eoss.org/hardware/canon_a570is.htm).

On Saturday, March 1st, we took everything to the nearby Columbus airport to fly it all to the edge of space (photo 3). Site of the future Space Port Indiana (www.spaceportindiana.com), the airport handled the NOTAM filing as well as the tower communications to coordinate our liftoff. Since it was a bit windy and chilly, it was nice to have access to a large building with high ceilings for the balloon inflation (photo 4).

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