Four participate in High Altitude Balloon Payload Competition

It takes a lot of nerve to work on a project for half a year, then drop it from the stratosphere and risk never seeing it again.

Yet, that’s exactly what four Craven Community College students did Saturday in the North Carolina Community College High Altitude Balloon Payload Competition.

Katelyn Adams, Kiefer Edwards, Jon Owens and Gabriel Pierre, all students at the Havelock campus, traveled to Hickory for the competition, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Space Grant and by NASA. Ten colleges were selected to participate in the event.

“This is our baby,” said Adams. “It’s been like six months working on it.”

The contraption records altitude, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and has an accelerometer for determining position in free space.

The team started from scratch, using free base components with no programs on them, completely open source software.

“We had to learn how to program programs,” Adams said. “We started from nothing. We started from chips and microcontrollers and we had to figure out everything from there.”

Pierre did most of the programming.

“It wasn’t too difficult,” he said. “There were a couple of small problems here and there, but they didn’t take too long to fix. It wasn’t as hard as we expected it to be.”

The hardest part was not being able to get the components to read the SD cards and learning how to calibrate some of the components, Pierre said.

“You can find anything on the internet and that’s how we fixed it,” he said. “That’s how we learned everything.”

Team members put their heads together early on to create the design.

“We worked together,” Adams said. “We had a white board and we were like ‘What do we need this to do? How are we going to get it to do that? Is this is a good idea?’ We went completely through the brainstorming process of ‘What shape should it be? What color should it be? How are we going to find it?’ So we went through the engineering design process to nail down every single part of our machine.”

The shell was made out of foam that used to make Marine boat hulls, a material chosen because it could be cut from a computerized numerical control machine due to its density and material properties.

Team members contacted the Materials and Composites Lab at the New Bern campus to cut the half-sphere out of a block of foam.

Edwards then spent about five hours grinding out pieces and smoothing the outside.

Owens had to get licensed as a HAM radio operator to facilitate communications with the payload.

The Havelock Fire and Rescue Department’s ladder truck was used in a preliminary test to determine if the rate of descent was within 15 to 25 meters per second as required by the FAA.

For the challenge Saturday, their payload was attached to a weather balloon filled with 250 cubic feet of helium and carried to a height of 13.86 miles above the Earth. Once at its peak altitude, the balloon popped.

The moment was recorded on a remote camera.

“In the bottom you can see a bit of the Earth and its aura. In the top you see the sun and below that is our popped balloon, our recovery parachute and Katelyn’s 3D printed shroud line ring,” the team said in a post.

The trip took the payload 160 miles from Hickory to Cameron, where the students located it by GPS in thick woods.

“It was fully recovered,” said Beth Andrews, coordinator and math instructor at CCC. “I’m very, very proud. Their entire project was intact. The payload did not have any damage to it. It was very exciting to see that.”

Results of the competition won’t be announced until June 1.