In April this year, KiwiSpace launched a helium-filled balloon to the 'edge of space' as part of our launch celebrations and the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight. This was a lot of fun, and resulted in some stunning photos being captured by the onboard camera. However the goal was always to go much further than this.

KiwiSpace has always wanted to develop an educational space balloon programme - providing students the opportunity to fly experiments to near-space and get involved with the process. This idea has been idling for a while, but we're keen to see if we can get this program underway, and need your help.

Our concept is quite fluid, and will depend a lot on what great ideas people come up with the for programme – but the base concept is something along the following lines:

Initial Concept

  • KiwiSpace would develop and launch a balloon, likely from somewhere in the Waikato plains (we have members within driving distance, and we need a 'wide' section of NZ to avoid losing the balloon in the sea)
  • The balloon would carry a core logistics payload of tracking equipment and cameras
  • Additional experiment payloads could be suspended beneath this primary payload
    • These payloads wouldn't need to deal with any tracking functions, as the core payload would handle that
    • These payloads could potentially be a larger experiment payload, or perhaps clusters of smaller items such as 'pongsats'

So the plan would be to have students or institutions develop an experiment payload, send it into us, and we'd then launch it. The experiments would then be returned to the students for analysis ... assuming the balloon is recovered (which is an unfortunate risk).

In a perfect world, we'd like to get students involved with the 'chase' – the tracking and recovery of the balloon, but there are a number of problems with that unfortunately: Launch windows depend primarily on the weather. This can be difficult to predict, as it's the high-altitude winds which are important (not whether it's a sunny day). The launch team would likely need to respond with a day-or-two's 'preliminary notice', and then ultimately get a final go-ahead at around 2am on launch day... If all goes well, we'd launch at say 6-8am, and recover by noon. But it could go much longer, if the balloon lands in difficult terrain. And all of this, to me, makes it difficult to plan student/class involvement. That said, we can certainly provide online tracking.

The experiments

My current thinking is that we determine a standard 'payload' specification, along the lines of a 'Pongsat'.

This PongSat combines temperature, vibration, tilt and light sensors.

While small, it is possible to cram a reasonable amount of electronics into the size. But it is also possible to perform non-electronic experiments, such as:

  • Whether a marshmallow puffs up in the vacuum of near-space
  • What effect cosmic rays have on the growth of plant seeds
  • Film cosmic ray experiment: Undeveloped film will often contain white streaks when developed after exposed to cosmic rays at high altitude
  • Twin-pongsats: one beeps, the other listens. Sound can be used to determine altitude
  • And there will be many more...

The pongsats, as they are self-contained could potentially just be suspended in a netted bag (for maximum atmospheric exposure), or in a separate insulated container.

In addition to this, custom experiments could be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Weight will ultimately be a deciding factor – the heavier the combined experiments, the slower the rise of the platform, or the need to go to a larger balloon - and much higher costs (helium is very expensive, although we are investigating hydrogen-fill as an option).

What are your thoughts?

So what do you think about this project concept?

  • We'd love to hear from teachers who would be interested in participating in this type of program
  • Are there any cool experiment ideas people can propose?
  • Are there any good curriculum linkages we can emphasise?
  • Is anyone interested in helping join a team to get this idea 'off the ground'?
  • And as always, we'd love to hear from anyone who may be prepared to help in a financial capacity – especially if someone knows how to get free/sponsored helium!

Mark Mackay
Executive Director,
KiwiSpace Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Mackay AUTHOR

    Here's another set of experiments performed by a primary-level school