Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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AEM spotlight:

MnSGC teams with Midwest universities to launch "constellation" payload

James Flaten

Pictured is a low-altitude shot from the November flight

University of Minnesota students, together with students from two local elementary schools, recently participated in a high-altitude balloon launch into "near-space" - above 80,000 feet. This activity was part of a simultaneous launch by approximately 9 colleges and universities around the Midwest, coordinated by Stratostar Systems and Taylor University, both in Indiana, which attempted to use a constellation of balloons to establish a temporary telecommunications network over the region.  The Minnesota Space Grant Consortium (MnSGC) U of M ballooning team, advised by Dr. James Flaten, launched, tracked and recovered the payload. MnSGC is run out of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics (AEM) at the University.
"High-altitude ballooning allows us to get scientific packages up into environments that are similar to those found in outer space" Flaten said.  "You can put up a balloon for a fraction of the cost of a rocket launch, making it an ideal way for students to be introduced to the science and engineering skills associated with building and launching space hardware."
Students from two St. Paul elementary schools - Farnsworth Aerospace and
Crossroads - also participated in the event by building research payloads and sending students to the launch. These elementary, student-built payloads collected weather-related data, such as temperature and relative humidity, as well as light intensity, all of which vary with altitude. In their payloads the students also included a camera to take photos at predetermined times.
“We built the box with a thermometer and heater, and we wanted to know how high it would go,” said Farnsworth student Bee of the project. “Also, we wanted to know the different temperatures inside and outside the box; we get information from the HOBO, it collects data and you plug it in to your computer.”
Bee said she enjoyed working with AEM students in building the payload because she got to see on what types of projects college-aged individuals work.
Jill Wall, a coordinator for Farnsworth Aerospace, said the launch helps students complete an academically rigorous project while working as a team.
"This exciting opportunity allowed our team of sixth grade students to work together with students and staff at the University to design, build, launch and recover data using the scientific process," she said.
The simultaneous balloon launch took place on Saturday, November 3, with the U of MN balloon and a second balloon from the College of Saint Catherine going up from Zimmerman, just north of the Twin Cities.  The onboard cameras took pictures and the sensors collected data during the 2.5 hour flight, but unfortunately the Stratostar package was unable to establish contact with the other balloons in the network, most of which were flying above Indiana and Illinois.  Another setback occurred when part of the U of MN payload stack tore away from the main parachute during the descent, which can be quite violent.  However the pieces of the payload were tracked with ham radios and GPS receivers and all of them were recovered in central Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon.
Despite not being 100% successful in its science mission, this balloon launch to near space was a good experience for all involved, Flaten said, and the MnSGC ballooning team will continue building payloads and launching them in the upcoming months.  U of M students interested in getting involved in this project should contact Dr. Flaten in the AEM department.
To learn more about the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, please visit
AEM offers outreach to teachers, students and the community. Visit to read more.

Click here to read the Minnesota Daily's coverage of the event.


Scenes from the event

Last Modified: Wednesday, 14-Nov-2007 11:25:42 CST -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation