Balloon project soaring skyward across Canada

By Costa Maragos Posted: May 26, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Ready for liftoff. Students from East Three Schools in Inuvik taking part recently in U of R experiment thanks to the Aurora Research Institute.
Ready for liftoff. Students from East Three Schools in Inuvik taking part recently in U of R experiment thanks to the Aurora Research Institute. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Research Institute)

A research project that originated at the University of Regina is gaining altitude and support in Saskatchewan and across the far reaches of Canada.

Teams across the country launched helium-filled stratospheric balloons that floated to the edge of space collecting photographs, video and data, late last month.

The National High Altitude Balloon Experiment (HABEX) started at the U of R with the idea that students, researchers and others could easily perform atmospheric experiments and share the findings.

“We’re really pleased with the response so far and proud that such a national experiment had its start at the U of R.” says Dr. David Gerhard, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and one of the founders of the project. Others involved in the project from the U of R are Dr. Stephen Cheng from the department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Mhmoud Esallah (Psych) and Thomas Ogilvie (GEO).
“We are already receiving data from teams, and the results are being shared with each other and the world,” says Dr. Gerhard.

Teams have launched balloons in Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and Inuvik.

Balloon Launch Inuvik

Scenes from the edge of Canada – Students in Inuvik take part in the U of R project. For the video please click here.

(Video courtesy of Aurora Research Institute)

“It was a lot of fun for us and the students to participate in this high altitude experiment, while at the same time capturing some beautiful and unique video of our region,” says Matthew Dares of the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik which launched the balloon with students from the local East Three Secondary School watching.

Amazingly, the balloon was retrieved but it took a two and a half hour trek each way by snow machine to find it “in the second lake of the Husky Lakes chain, just waiting for us,” says Dares.

Saskatchewan students are onboard this project as well. Recently the Grade 11 Environmental Science class at Miller High School in Regina launched its balloon.  Other local schools participating include Regina Huda School, Greenall High School in Balgonie and Lumsden High School with plans to expand HABEX to schools across Saskatchewan. 

The experiment uses an open-source flight system developed by the U of R and includes instructions on developing the ‘flying’ kit.

“To date, launching a space balloon, and retrieving the payload afterward, has been difficult and expensive, but our team of students has developed a kit of equipment and instructions making easy for anyone to perform this experiment,” says Dr. Gerhard.
This national project started in one of Dr. Gerhard’s ‘Building Interactive Gadgets’ class where a team of four students launched a ‘do it yourself’ balloon into space in 2013.

“There are two main goals to the project: Collecting data about the atmosphere is important to study weather patterns and track how the atmosphere is changing. But to me the more important thing is enabling ordinary citizens to participate in this collection of data. This has two effects: More data, but also more people who are engaged and excited about science,” says Dr. Gerhard.

For the latest on HABEX please visit here.  

HABEX has received key funding support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) ‘Promo Science Program, Praxair (helium supplier), GlobalStar (SPOT trace devices), the University of Regina Alumni Association, and Science Rendezvous.