Science Q&A: Ontario Tech University sends a weather balloon into space

Shelly Totino


Science is really cool, there’s no denying that. What’s even cooler is the innovative science that has been happening right here on campus.

Last month, a team of Ontario Tech University physics students and professors from the Faculty of Science and the Physics Research Group set out to send a weather balloon into space. Think that’s crazy? Well, it’s apparently a thing – and such a big thing that there are teams from all across Canada with the sole intention to explore the edge of space with high altitude balloons. This project, organized for Science Rendezvous at Ontario Tech University on May 9, 2015, is part of a larger, Canada-wide High Altitude Balloon Experiment (HABEX).

I got to chat with Kyle Mills, the graduate student working on this project, about his experience sending the balloon into space and how cool it was to do something like this. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Where did the idea to send a weather balloon into space come from?

A: My professor, Isaac Tamblyn, volunteered to organize the launch as part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge, and to organize a display for Science Rendezvous, a community event at Ontario Tech University aimed at introducing kids and parents to science.

UOIT weather balloon experiment

Q: What kind of preparation did you have to do beforehand to make sure the experiment succeeded?

A: The balloon kit, complete with sensors, parachute and camera, all came together so there wasn’t a huge amount of building involved, just assembly. We did a test launch two weeks before the May 9 Science Rendezvous launch. For this, we had to drive to Huntsville (2.5 hours away) since the wind was blowing southward. Prior to both launches, we notified air traffic control and Transport Canada, as the balloon could interfere with aircraft in the area. After the launch, the GPS malfunctioned and we weren’t able to track the balloon; we thought we had lost the payload of sensors and the camera.

However, the GPS started working again and we were able to recover the payload. Unfortunately, as a result of the sub -50 degree Celsius temperatures in the lower stratosphere, the batteries quickly died on the sensors and we really didn’t have much information about the flight. We also only got about 20 minutes of video footage.

To improve for the second launch, I insulated the payload with Styrofoam and we purchased higher capacity batteries that were rated for colder conditions. We also included a few of those chemically activated “hot-pocket” hand warmers to keep the battery temperature high enough. This worked perfectly. The internal payload temperature stayed above -5 degrees Celsius, even when the outside temperature was below -60 degrees Celsius.

UOIT weather balloon experiment

Q: What does this kind of experiment mean in the physics community and for future physics students?

A: The data itself is not particularly valuable; these aren’t expensive scientific-grade sensors. The main goal of this project was to get the community involved in something amazing, and that’s what we did!

The data is not completely useless, however. I know two physics professors here at Ontario Tech University are interested in incorporating the data into their first year physics courses next year. These courses deal with acceleration and forces, which the balloon’s sensors measured. It will give future students practice analyzing real data, and will hopefully help give a real-world example of the concepts that they are learning about.

Q: What kind of data was collected from the balloon?

A: Various atmospheric data were collected using two sets of sensors on the balloon. Some sensors were external, measuring temperature, carbon dioxide/nitrogen dioxide levels and light levels. Others were internal, measuring acceleration, rotation and barometric pressure. There was also a GPS tracker so we could locate the payload after it parachuted back to Earth. And of course, there was the camera, which captured some spectacular footage of the journey. Most of the raw data is plotted on our website

UOIT weather balloon experiment

Q: How did it feel to be a part of the team that made this happen?

A: It was a very exciting project to work on. Seeing the video after and realizing just how high this balloon went was amazing. It was also great to work with the professors to organize the launches and the logistics of the project. We had a few students show interest and get involved as well, which is great!

Q: Now that you’ve done this, what other kinds of experiments does it inspire you to try?

A: If we were to do this again, we would like to design the sensors ourselves. It would be more difficult, but we would learn more if we had to actually build the sensors from scratch. In the physics program, we have an electronics course, where we use small Raspberry Pi computers to design sensors. I could see a project like this being incorporated those types of courses, or at least using the knowledge from the course to help with the project. I would also like to include some type of stabilization device, to steady the payload so the video is smoother.

Watch the peak altitude and balloon burst video below or watch the full two hour video.  

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