Mechanical engineering students sail to the stratosphere

Mechanical engineering students will be part of two teams that are sending experimental projects to the stratosphere this summer with SEDS-Canada (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space).

SEDS-Canada is a student-run non-profit with a mandate to promote the development of the Canadian space sector and students who want to pursue a career in the space industry. To this end SEDS-Canada offers students opportunities for professional development such as national competitions, including the CAN-SBX competition that the two U of A teams just won.

The CAN-SBX is Canada’s first nationwide competition for two teams of undergraduate students to design and build a small experiment to be flown aboard a stratospheric balloon gondola. The balloon gondola, the CARMEN CITA, is owned by the Centre national d’etudes spatiales (CNES). The campaign, of which the two U of A experiments will be a part, is a collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), CNES and SEDS-Canada. To participate, groups must complete a full engineering design cycle, from conception to execution, meeting milestones, providing deliverables and working within constraints determined by SEDS-Canada and the CSA. Throughout the campaign, teams will work with experts in the field who will coach and mentor them.

Team HABOO, which stands for High Altitude Balloon Ozone Observer is an inter-disciplinary and even inter-institutional team, made up of Stephanie Schneider, a 1st year Masters student in Environmental Chemistry student at the University of Toronto, Sherry Gao, a third year Engineering Physics student, Evans Frandsen, a second year Mechanical Engineering student and Nigel Rodrigues, Harry Singh, Rahul Ravin, and Jean-Luc Olsen, are all in their fifth year of Mechanical Engineering. The team’s faculty adviser is, Dr. Aleksey Baldygin, Research Scientist in MecE’s iSSELab, KRÜSS Surface Science hub and Dr. Prashant Waghmare, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering is the principal investigator.

Rahul Ravin initiated the formation of the team, having learned about the balloon project when he attended a SEDS-Canada conference. When the competition was announced he reached out to fellow undergraduates and Dr. Baldygin and they worked together on the proposal. “I wanted to be part of the CSA program to launch a balloon 35 kilometers into the atmosphere. I like the challenge of designing something for the extreme conditions of near-space,” says Ravin.

The group decided to test an idea from the literature that has not been verified to date. “Several researchers working within the solar geoengineering research program at Harvard have proposed to use calcite aerosol instead of sulphate aerosol into the stratosphere to scatter the sun’s rays as a solution to global warming,” explains Ravin. “Sulphate aerosols are the leading choice for solar geoengineering, however they are found to degrade the local concentrations of ozone. It is theorized that calcite would not have this detrimental effect, and therefore could be a better option for geoengineering.”

The HABOO team designed an experiment to expose small amounts of calcite in the stratosphere. The calcite samples will be exposed and the team will analyze the reaction products to determine whether the calcite could have an impact on local ozone concentrations. Samples will be exposed for various amounts of time.

A rendering of HABOO's sample collection device. Each blue plate is a lid covering a sample filter. Lids will open to collect samples for various lengths of time. 

“Calcite is fairly stable and it’s found in the environment naturally,” says Ravin. “There are models in the literature which suggest that it could lead to an increase in local ozone concentrations. We do not expect any ozone break down. But we’re going to verify the models.”  

In addition to the final flight campaign at the end of August in Timmins, Ontario, the team has several milestones to meet along the way. The first is a preliminary design review by officials from the CSA and SEDS, which will happen during the first week of February. This initial meeting will be a particular challenge for the HABOO group as most of the team is at the Western Engineering Competition during the first week of classes.

“We’re going to have to work in Vancouver at the competition and then when we get back it will be crunch time,” says Rahul.

AlbertaSat won the other spot for a student project SBX-SEDS spot on CARMEN CITA. AlbertaSat recently launched a small cube satellite, the ExAlta1, into orbit around the earth from the International Space Station and they plan to use their chance in the stratosphere to test run their next project, the Ex-Alta 2 There are approximately 9 members of the wider AlbertaSat team actively involved in the SBX project, along with faculty adviser, Dr. David Milling from the Department of Physics.

Taryn Haluza-Delay, Erik Halliwell, Casia McLeod and Katelyn Ball of AlbertaSat with a poster of the Ex-Alta 1 and a digital rendering of Ex-Alta 2

AlbertaSat will use their spot on the CARMEN CITA to test run the payload that will fly on their next cube satellite, the Ex-Alta 2. The main payload on the Ex-Alta 2 is a multispectral imager, which will monitor the life cycles of forests to contribute to the prevention of forest fires. The SBX will be a chance for the AlbertaSat team to see how a prototype of the imager works in an uncontrolled, extreme environment.

Currently the team is designing the imager, in order to have the prototype ready for the launch of the balloon in August 2018. Because the SBX campaign will be a test run for the Ex-Alta 2 imager, the imager will take pictures of a controlled subject, a checkerboard pattern or something similar. This will provide the AlbertaSat team a chance to see how the imager itself expands and contracts in the various and changing environments it will face. Once the imager is back on earth, the AlbertaSat team will diagnose the issues the imager face through its flight.

AlbertaSat has already done 3 smaller-scale high altitude balloon missions, which they undertook themselves but the SBX is the first third party balloon mission they have taken part in. Because they had done the prior balloon missions, when they heard about the SBX the team agreed it was a good idea to submit a proposal. The team considered several different projects to propose but ultimately picked the imager idea because it benefits Ex-Alta 2.

“The data we collect on the balloon flight will be a direct benefit to the development of the imager for the Ex-Alta 2 ” explains Katelyn Ball, a systems engineer member AlbertaSat.

Watch this space to learn how team HABOO and AlbertaSat progress and succeed with their SBX adventures!