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MSU students get NASA experience sending experiments to the edge of space

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By Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service

Two groups of students, staff and faculty from Montana State
University and the Montana Space Grant Consortium gathered on a plateau
overlooking the Yellowstone River east of Livingston, on Thursday morning.
Some checked the rigging on what looked to be cardboard and Styrofoam boxes
– their modest exteriors belying the high tech equipment inside. Other team
members filled a giant latex balloon with helium.

The two groups were working on launching their experiments into near-space,
100,000 feet above the Livingston airport runway where the groups met. The
hands-on summer projects was giving Montana students an opportunity to
engage in real world science and build their resumes.

Members of the Balloon Outreach, Research, Exploration and Landscape Imaging
System (BOREALIS) Project, part of the MSGC, sent temperature and pressure
sensors, still and video cameras, and a “command center” used to control the
release of a parachute and send GPS coordinates, into the sky. Under the
direction of, Berk Knighton, BOREALIS flight director, the nine
undergraduate interns, three from Tribal Colleges, and one high school
student, from across Montana, spent 10 weeks designing and building
experiments for several balloon flights.

MSU engineering students launching the high altitude balloon
in Livingston. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.


“It’s a chance for these students to be involved in science,” said Randy
Larimer, deputy director of the MSU Borealis team. “It’s a hands-on
experience that prepares them for a future in the STEM disciplines: science,
technology, engineering and math.”

The other group included six undergraduate female engineering students who
were part of a program aimed at developing the technology for exploration,
things like rockets and satellites. As part of the NASA Exploration System
Mission Directorate Higher Education Project they spent eight weeks
designing part of the payload, or the cargo, the BOREALIS balloon carried.

“This is the first time most of these women get to work on an
interdisciplinary team, which is an important skill for them to have as they
move forward in their careers,” said Brock LaMeres, assistant professor of
electrical and computer engineering and principle investigator on the NASA
project. “They are exposed to a real systems engineering and aerospace
project, which is what NASA does. And they get to work with other women
engineers and be exposed to that dynamic.”

The ESMD payload carried a radiation sensor developed at MSU as part of
another research effort sponsored by NASA under the direction of LaMeres to
build fault tolerant aerospace computers. The ESMD students designed and
built a box that the sensor could be carried in, wrote a computer program
and figured out how to power the computer system for the duration of the
flight. The entire payload had to function in temperatures ranging from -76
degrees to 140 degrees and buffer the sensor when it parachuted back to
earth. The team also developed the peripheral electronics to run the sensor.
And it all had to weigh less than six pounds.

The ESMD program aims to involve universities in NASA research and engage
underrepresented groups, such as women, in science, technology, engineering
and math. NASA wants to train and develop the highly skilled scientific,
engineering, and technical workforce of the future. That’s where the MSU
summer program comes in.

“I learned a lot about embedded systems at a hardware, rather than software
level, during this project,” said Stephani Schiekle an MSU computer science
senior from Bozeman. “In addition to that, working with an interdisciplinary
team of women has been awesome and I have a better understanding of what
other majors do now.”

“We used a lot of what we learned in our classes and expanded on that,” said
Katie Schipf, a senior in mechanical engineering from Highwood. “It’s
helpful to work with other majors and compromise on certain things,
depending on what they need for their part of the project.”

Part of the ESMD summer experience included a role model series. Once a week
the women would meet with professional women, including MSU Provost Martha
Potvin, MSU BOREALIS Director Angela Des Jardins and MSU President Waded
Cruzado, to learn about their careers and their career paths.

“It was really valuable to see the different tracks these women took to get
into their professional positions,” Schiekle said.

Back at the Livingston airport, high on the plateau, the teams slowly
launched the balloon, the three payload boxes hanging below. With the
foothills of the Absaroka Range in the background, the payload spun in big
lazy circles beneath the 10-foot diameter balloon. The teams cheered and
commented on how impressive it was to see their work rising in the sky above
them. The balloon grew as it climbed into the atmosphere and inflated to
about 40 feet, rendering it visible, even at 100,000 feet.

After nearly two hours, it popped, the parachute unfolded and the payload
dropped back to earth in just half an hour. It landed northeast of Big
Timber near Sweet Grass Creek.

“It was a great experience to actually build something, rather than just
read about it,” said Schipf. “And it is so fun to see it actually working.”

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