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Students Launch Balloon into Global Competition

Engineering class designs balloon to fly high, gather data

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Update: The balloon's payload, launched into a cloudless sky Wednesday, has not been recovered.

Mountrakis said all systems were working properly but either a catastrophic event took place that disintegrated the entire payload or it landed in a "dead zone" with no cell or radio coverage. The team believes it would have landed east of Cortland. He and the students will analyze some telemetry data to see if they can close in on the location.

"Right now our best hope is that a local person will find it and report it back to us," Mountrakis said. "Space can be a unforgiving place, but I am hoping that the engineering lessons will last beyond this experiment."

Within minutes of the launch, the students were receiving radio signals that indicated the balloon was already 8,500 feet above the earth, traveling southeast as it crossed Interstate 481. A chase crew set out in pursuit to search for the payload.

Scores of students, facutly and staff gathered on the Quad to cheer on the launch, with a couple dozen students lying on the grass to spell out ESF for the unusual high-altitude photo opportunity.

More information will be posted here when it becomes available. You can also follow the project on ESF's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/sunyesf) and Twitter feed (twitter.com/sunyesf/)

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A high-altitude balloon, inflated with helium and carrying a payload of lightweight electronics, took flight today (April 29) from the ESF campus as part of a global competition.

Fifteen ESF students in an engineering class taught by Dr. Giorgos Mountrakis launched the balloon from the ESF Quad after a semester of designing, constructing and testing the balloon.

"It's been a painstaking process," said senior Mark Bailey. "We've really tried to push the edge with the innovation."

Bailey and his classmates are participating in the Global Space Balloon Challenge, which involves 295 teams in 47 countries on six continents. The goal is to use innovative design to develop balloons that can gather data in a manner that is less expensive than using satellites.

The electronics payload contains a miniature "Raspberry Pi" computer, a panoramic camera, a GPS unit and a radio transmitter built into a fiberglass housing designed and constructed by the students. Given the domelike shape and the wooden dowel that protrudes from both sides, master's student Alyssa Endres declared, "It looks like a little alien."

"It's just a house for anything we're going to send up that's not the balloon or the parachute," Endres said.

"The breakable stuff," added Sean Matus, a junior.

The ESF balloon is competing in categories involving the highest altitude, the best photo, most innovative design and best science experiment.

Achieving the highest altitude - possibly over 100,000 feet - involves a tricky balance of helium estimation: too much and the balloon will pop early, too little and there will not be enough lift. The students hope the camera will capture images that show both the balloon and the earth below. The design was carefully worked out in the hopes the balloon will fly high and take lots of interesting photos. The experiment involves the comparison of the near-infrared images of vegetation gathered by the balloon with similar data obtained by a NASA satellite scheduled to fly over Syracuse at roughly the same time.

Just three days before the launch, the students were hunching over computers to calculate details, trying to figure out their balloon system and testing the operations of parachutes that will allow the payload to land gently once the balloon pops. During the flight, some of the students will remain on campus to monitor the balloon's progress. Others will set out on the road to recover the payload when it lands.

The one-credit course called "ESF Goes to Space," Mountrakis said, goes beyond the students' degree requirements. "So they really have to enjoy what they're doing," he said. "I want them to reach their potential. If it doesn't work, it shouldn't be for lack of effort or testing. It will just be that somebody outsmarted us."

"It's a rare class in terms of going through a design process and then you actually build it," Bailey said. "We're actually programming it to get real data."

"It's kind of fun," said Tim Pede, a graduate student who was working on the electronics. "There's that inner child that wants to launch a balloon and chase after it. It's chemistry and physics and computer science all rolled into one."

The students gathered in Baker Lab on multiple Sunday afternoons to work on the project. They were aided by Chris Somerlot, who teaches a computer class at ESF and joined the balloon project as a volunteer adviser to help the students with the computer programming. Mountrakis said the class received financial support from the ESF Department of Environmental Resources Engineering, the college president's office and the Alumni Association.

This is the second time a class of Mountrakis' has launched a balloon from the ESF Quad. In 2010, his students sent up a weather balloon that traveled about 170 miles before the payload was recovered near Poughkeepsie.