Physics students show aptitude for altitude

(Edmonton) It would be an understatement to say that University of Alberta physics student Collin Cupido said yes instantly to a special job this summer in far-off New Hampshire.

“You want me to go do something for NASA? Let’s go do it,” said Cupido.

He admits they had him at “NASA.”

Cupido, along with four other U of A physics students and their instructor, went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire for two weeks to help researchers there prepare atmospheric monitoring equipment for a NASA mission.

The U of A team worked with the Dartmouth researchers to assemble and test some of the 45 payloads and helium balloons that NASA will launch from Antarctica during two month-long campaigns in January 2013 and January 2014.

Dave Milling, the U of A physics researcher on the trip, explained that Dartmouth is leading the research project to study space radiation.

Space radiation is described as highly energetic particles in a doughnut-shaped belt surrounding Earth. Periodic blasts of solar activity can whip the particles up to nearly the speed of light, and the resulting space storms can knock out communications satellites and endanger the health of astronauts. International Space Station personnel could be vulnerable when required to make spacewalks.

Milling says the Earth’s polar regions are the best places to study the phenomenon.

“High-altitude balloons launched in Antarctica get caught in the Polar Vortex, hitching a free ride on winds that takes them in a big circle around the continent,” said Milling. “A similar, although weaker, vortex exists over the Canadian Arctic, but the balloons would circle through Russian airspace and they could be shot down.”

NASA’s weather balloons are big targets. The balloons each expand to 300,000 cubic feet, and as many as eight of them will be in flight at the same time for 10 days, after which they will deflate and fall to the frozen surface of Antarctica.

The U of A students won’t be going to Antarctica for the launch, but once the balloons are in the air, they’ll play a pivotal role in the mission.

“We’ll monitor GPS signals from the balloons over the Internet to make sure everything is on track,” said Cupido.

Cupido and fellow physics student Alex Hamilton will launch their own weather balloon later this year, in a scaled-down version of the Dartmouth research into high-energy particles and Earth’s magnetic field.

Milling says part of the physics department’s goal is to keep students interested in space research—and events like the Dartmouth trip and student-led high-altitude balloon experiments serve an important purpose. “Giving students like Alex and Collin the go-ahead to launch a weather balloon research project is right down their street,” said Milling.

Cupido and Hamilton aren’t sure when they’ll launch their home-built radiation detector, but they’ll be calling on many others in the department to help out.

“If the university’s goal is to keep us engaged in space research, they’re doing a pretty good job,” said Hamilton.