Friday, May 27, 2016

Three Great Things!

 A small part of tUR got together for dinner after finals to celebrate the project and plan for the future.

Friends and family were invited, including the dynamic duo who designed our award winning t-shirts. OK maybe our t-shirts didn't win an award but...


The team worked so hard on their Critical Design Review, Launch Readiness Review, technical report, scientific poster, and of course, the Post Launch Assessment Review. It was wonderful news to hear that we won an award for our documentation and I am so proud of them. They earned every bit of that award! All of the meetings, Google Hangouts, and group Google Doc editing has paid off! You haven't lived until you've had so many people editing a Google Doc that the thing starts bugging out. 

Plus, I think that whenever everyone on the team begins to write a report or start a new powerpoint, they will think about these projects (and swear quietly under their breath.)

Here are the overall results:

Best Team Work: Craven Community College

Best Payload: Edgecombe Community College

Best Picture/Video: Southwestern Community College

Best Documentation: Durham Technical Community College

Highest Altitude: Pitt Community College

A special shout out goes to the Cinderella of the teams, RCCC. Based on their telemetry they were confident that they lost their payload in the ocean. With the wind the way it was that day it was actually a possibility that if they hit the right altitude it could blow the balloon from Hickory all the way into the drink. About ten days ago the RCCC team was contacted by fisherman off of the Outer Banks who had recovered their payload! I'm not sure it will be in very good shape after almost two months in saltwater but I know that they will get some satisfaction that it was found.

I feel like we also won best team work. (Not sour grapes...just proud of my team.) Unless Craven Community College is braiding each others hair and singing each other to sleep I don't think they can beat the team work of my ragtag team. Have any of them hand fed a team member cheesy popcorn? 

In my heart I will always feel like we won Best Picture in the Burger King parking lot when Dan saw this photo and hooted so loud that we all heard ringing in our ears.

...But you can tell that Southwestern spent eons perfecting their winning video and it deserved to win.

Congratulations to all of the teams who completed the competition. Everyone put a ton of work into the project and you could tell on launch day that the work paid off. It was one of the toughest challenges I've ever faced. (And I've completed 6 triathlons, a half marathon, five books, and a MS thesis. Nice work, Doug.) 

The jury is out on whether or not the competition will take place again next year. Hopefully some version of the challenge will continue. I have never seen a project that has had this much of a lasting impact on students. Which brings me to the next GREAT thing.


Student Team Lead, Jimmy Acevedo, has accepted an internship with NASA for the summer. He will be working with the PIPER Balloon project.  We are thrilled, excited, and not at all surprised. Here's a photo of Jimmy getting the news. (We learned of these two things within about 20 minutes of each other so it was a #bigday.)

Goddard was his first choice location and this project was, in my opinion, the most interesting of all the projects he applied for back in the Spring. (I know he's disappointed to miss the urinalysis internship but he'll have to make do with Big Bang cosmology.) I'm excited to tell the Big Bang skeptics in my geology course that my best friend helped prove the theory. 

Having Jimmy get this internship was like winning Best Documentation twice. I watched him spend countless hours on his application essays and I am so pleased that his enthusiasm came through and they picked the right viking for the job.


Alright Space Fans, stay tuned because we have decided to squeeze in a summer launch before Jimmy leaves town. This is going to take some work but we are basically hoping to fly the mission we wanted to fly before with a working GoPro and a polimaster. Our original hull and other gear are intact. The TURDS, TURTLES, and Space Dongles are strewn haphazardly around the geology lab. 
With a little bit of polish we'll be ready to fly again in a jiffy. Sadly, no time for drop testing...maybe I can convince them to spend an hour on top of a parking garage anyway. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Unacceptable Risks Meet an Astronaut!

A week or so ago an email landed in my inbox that was so unbelievable that I almost had to pinch myself.

Our Dean had been working for a few months to set something up for us with US2020, a mentorship program in the Research Triangle Park. The stars had finally aligned enough for us to have an opportunity to visit them at the Frontier Happy Hour...and show off our poster....and see our favorite Space Grant people...and meet some people from CASIS! Oh and by the way, Rex Walheim will be there. Would your students like to meet an astronaut?

Believe it or not, I made a decision to delete the email right then and never mention it to the team. Why? Because this golden opportunity was on the worst day of finals and I knew that many of them had very serious exams that night.

Once when I was in graduate school, my sister in law won tickets to see Weezer and Tenacious D in concert together and invited me to go. Unfortunately, the concert was the day of a geostatistics exam and it was in Texas. I had to choose and let's just say I made the wrong choice. (I chose school.)

So, I looked at this email and made the decision to at least tell Jimmy and let him make an educated choice. I sent him an email, "Please call when you can. It's about an astronaut." Seconds later my phone rang. Jimmy takes astronauts very seriously. We concluded that this was an opportunity that was not to be missed and I started brainstorming ways to make it work. Between me, the Chair of the Science Department and some very understanding instructors, we were able to proctor some exams early and go meet a hero!

Thursday was a long day. Work, differential equations finals, grading four sections of exams....we were all pretty wrung out by the time we landed at this event. It was all worth it because the event at Frontier was instantly invigorating. From the moment we set up our poster people were lined up to speak with the students about their project. We met many fabulous people in the scientific community and we were eager to speak with them about their research. The students were very happily overwhelmed with possibilities. Dan was even asked to participate with NCSU's award winning rocketry team in the fall.

After a few hours of mingling and networking we listened to a presentation about the International Space Station. I sat on a couch with an astronaut for a while. No big deal.

Most of the team had not been fed or watered for a long stretch of time so I snuck out to the car and found the most delicious and well received bag of baby carrots in America. We were fading, Jimmy was hoarse and we still hadn't met an astronaut.

But then Rex took the stage and we got our third wind. He gave a dynamic presentation about his time training for his mission and work on the ISS. It was eye opening to see the behind the scenes preparation and the emotional impact of his work on his family. He shared some stunning photos and video from his experience and the team was enthralled. After his presentation was over he took questions and I asked him, very predictably, "What advice do you have for students who might hope to one day work with the Mars mission?"

David said, "You are such a teacher."

Rex answered that the best thing that they can do is to be persistent. He knew he wanted to be an astronaut but his best laid plans derailed when a doctor told him he had a heart murmur. Undaunted, he proceeded with his training and found a way to still be involved as a test pilot. After he completed his training he visited another doctor to be cleared for flight and found out he did not have a heart murmur!

This struck me as solid advice and I was happy that my team heard it. We learned a lot about persistence during this project!  I hope they will remember this moment when they face even bigger challenges in the coming years and use this experience as a fuel to persevere.

After the question and answer period was over Rex was swarmed with people who wanted photos and we hung back shyly until our friend Sandy, from Space Grant, encouraged us to elbow our way in and get some photos. I'm so glad she did.

Rex spoke with us for a bit about our project and seemed genuinely interested to hear about our first launch. Do you know what it's like to compare space photos with an astronaut?


We were all a bit star struck. 

Unacceptable thanks to US2020, Frontier, NC Space Grant, CASIS, Dr. Zarilla, Dean Mancini, Sr. Lee and persistence for making another one of our dreams come true. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Our Post Launch Assessment Review clocked in at a whopping 52 pages even with the majority of the appendices housed in the Google Drive. I am sure that we will post some sections of it on the blog over the next few weeks but I wanted to share our data with you because I've had a few people ask me about our results.

tUR flight all in one jmhoover.jpg

The orange line in the graph above shows our internal temperature, which will be discussed more in depth in the next graph. This shows the temperature steadily rising until our launch point, indicated by where the altitude, the blue line, starts to increase. It plummeted during the flight until the payload landed and then temperatures leveled out again.
The white line, humidity, spiked multiple times during our filling of the balloon; this was likely caused by a team member breathing on it or perspiring near it. The humidity is very erratic around our launch point due to being introduced to outside air for the first time. It rose very quickly through mostly cloudless skies and therefore we did not see a large increase in humidity as the balloon rose. It then remains at minimal levels throughout the time in the upper atmosphere. There is an increase as it is descending which indicates it passing through the clouds on the way back down to earth. This is corroborated by looking at the photographs from flight. Once the payload landed, it stayed relatively constant.
External temperature shown by the yellow line was one of the more interesting readings of the flight. It shows a steady temperature during the inflation but then a very quick drop as we moved outside and then a steady drop throughout the flight. One particularly interesting point on the graph is that as the humidity at launch is approaching zero the temperature jumped up a couple degrees for a few moments before steadily decreasing. Then, as our research predicted, the temperature decreased as we moved up through the troposphere making it to nearly -20°C. Once it reached the tropopause the temperature increased as it moved higher into the stratosphere until the balloon burst. The temperature then decreased as the payload fell back to the tropopause and then began to increase as it made its way down to earth’s surface.  We reached our lowest temperature during our fall, showing the differences in temperature at similar altitudes but different locations.
The green line indicating pressure is the most expected line on our graph. It decreases steadily throughout the flight reaching its minimum right at our burst altitude, nearly reaching zero. Then after burst it increased at a steady rate until it arrived at our landing site back at near sea level.
This is the graph of our internal temperature measured from our BMP183 sensor. It was very unexpected for the temperature to spike like that in the beginning. This was due to our electronics generating heat and our excellent insulation. We believe this build-up of heat before launch caused our GoPro and 2m GPS to fail. While we had done testing to make sure our payload would work in cold temperatures it never occurred to us to check if the internal temperature was below safe operating range. Temperature steadily declined during our flight due to the colder temperatures of the upper atmosphere. However, it never dropped below freezing inside the payload. The internal temperature then steadily increased as our payload sat in a tree until you see the sudden drop when we opened the payload upon retrieval.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Factus Est

At 10:57 PM, the Unacceptable Risks submitted their final document for this project. We did the thing. It's been a great ride!

(It's not really done. We have budget leftovers to finish, the beginnings of new projects in the offing and a wrap-up party, but we're going to coast on our laurels for a bit.)

Also, we made a silly video.

Time to sleep for forever, and by 'sleep' I mean 'study for finals because apparently real life is still happening in the background.'