Student balloon flight tests innovative descent system and astrobiology experiment

Posted by ap507 at Jul 05, 2017 09:29 AM |
University of Leicester student project takes to the skies to help in developing future stratospheric flights

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 5 July 2017­

Images of the balloon and E.coli strain used as part of the astrobiology experiment are available here:

Physics students from the University of Leicester have flown a new high altitude balloon, achieving a successful test of their innovative descent system which could help in the development of stratospheric flights in the future.

The system kept the balloon airborne for over 7 hours 15 minutes before a gentle and controlled landing in the North Sea.

Developed by students from the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, the system has the significant advantage of providing greater opportunities for scientific research across many fields.

The system may also enable future balloons to be reused after recovery.

The flight was launched from near to Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire on Tuesday 27 June, and reached a maximum height of 23.5 km above Leicester where it hovered for several hours before drifting North East to land 20 km off the coast near the Humber estuary.

The flight duration was longer than expected due to unanticipated behaviour from the descent system. The jet of escaping helium acted as a thruster when the vent was initially opened, changing the ascent rate from 1.2 m/s to almost 5 m/s. This allowed the balloon to travel more than 250km across the country.

The students, in collaboration with the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre (SRC), also flew a biological experiment with a harmless growth limited (uracil auxotroph) E.coli strain called OP50 acting as a food source for a wild, N2, strain of C.elegans nematode worms.

The experiment planned to measure the C.elegans' growth rate when subjected to physiological stresses. 

Student Ryan Bradley-Evans said: “Astrobiology experiments like these are very important to not only allow us to figure out if life could exist elsewhere in the universe but also, in order to push the boundaries of human space exploration, we need to understand how biological matter interacts with extreme environments such as space. The stratosphere provides a good testing ground due to its low pressures, low temperatures and an increased UV levels.”

Robert Peck said: “We have gathered significant data on the performance of our descent system and we have high hopes for a much greater level of control in future flights.”

Professor Paul Monks, Head of College of Science and Engineering at the University of Leicester, said: “Student innovation lies at the heart of the modern university experience. These experiments have real science and engineering at the heart of them and could lead to new ways of being able to look at growth under stress. As can be seen in science everything doesn’t always go to plan and you discover new things.”

The students involved were members of the University of Leicester’s Astronomy and Rocketry Society (AstRoSoc) with Ryan Bradley-Evans as project leader and responsible for the biological experiment, Robert Peck responsible for flight control electronics, Oli Crask developing the radio communications systems, and several other team members including Vlad Verminskyi, William Schulz and Hannah Musson assisting with the project.

The students express their thanks to the amateur radio enthusiasts who helped to track the flight, as well as to John Holt of the SRC for his support throughout the project.

Two days after the balloon's loss at sea Sarah and Emily Pattison contacted the student team after having found the balloon on a beach just north of the Humber estuary.

All of the data logging and flight control systems aboard the balloon had survived. 

The students are now analysing the stored data to improve their system for future flights.


Notes to editors:

For more information contact Ryan Bradley-Evans, project lead, on email

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