Aggie High-Altitude Balloon Club visits Alaska for study

Aggies in Alaska

A patch of the midnight sky on the starboard side suddenly lit up with ephemeral green and blue lights. Although the lights were fleeting, the glow of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) was unmistakable.

For the next 30 minutes the Aurora would splash the sky with brilliant colors appearing out of nowhere and vanishing just as abruptly. The sleepy Aggies on Alaska Airlines Flight #7101, a red-eye from Seattle to Fairbanks, were suddenly wide awake.

That was the first sighting of the Aurora by the Texas A&M High-Altitude Balloon Club (HABC) members. The Alaska natives on the flight were only too happy to share their Aurora stories with the Aggies. As the flight came into land at the Fairbanks airport at about 2 a.m., the colors of the Aurora faded into the background as the bright city lights illuminated the sky.

Unfortunately, that was the best Aurora sighting during the teams’ four-day trip to Fairbanks.

Project Aurora was an activity organized by the club, in conjunction Houston-based Project Aether Group. The Texas A&M team consisted of nine undergraduates (Rahul Venkatraman, aerospace engineering; Kimberley Webster, aerospace engineering; Megan Woodring, aerospace engineering; Christopher Cantu, aerospace engineering; Nicholas Ortiz, aerospace engineering; Lisa Malone, aerospace engineering; Celica Perez, biology; Dylan McGarry, mechanical engineering; and Travis Dawsey, manufacturing), two graduate students (Frans Ebersohn, aerospace engineering; and John Guthery, aerospace engineering).

The project was coordinated and supervised by dr. Sharath Girimaji, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Girimaji and the undergraduate team traveled to Fairbanks April 5 and returned April 10. The graduate students spent two weeks, from March 31 to April 14, with the Project Aether team.

As a part of the project, students launched helium-filled weather balloons capable of reaching 100,000 ft (20 miles) altitude into the Arctic sky to observe the northern lights and make various measurements. Each flight carried a payload of about four pounds and was tracked using Spot-GPS. The ascent time to 100K ft is about two hours. As the best Aurora viewing was at 3 a.m., most of the launches were between midnight and 1 a.m.

Five successful launches were completed and four balloons were recovered. One balloon was lost due to tracking malfunction. The project consisted of six missions:

  • Standard Atmosphere: to measure and create tables and graphs of temperature, pressure and density versus altitude;
  • Sky Loiter: to increase the balloon loitering time at a certain altitudes inside to measurements;
  • Sounds of the Aurora: to record and document aurora acoustics and underlying physics;
  • Life in the Aurora: to examine mutations in bacteria at the edge of space in the aurora;
  • Stardust capture: to capture particles propagating in the aurora using an aerogel similar to that used by NASA; and
  • Colors of the Aurora: spectroscopy analysis to see what elements are prevalent in the Aurora.

The Texas A&M High Altitude Balloon Club is one part of the recently started Buoyant Flight Laboratory in the aerospace engineering department. The purpose of this laboratory is twofold: First, and foremost, the objective is to provide undergraduate students experiential learning opportunities with one of the most benign forms of flight, buoyant flight. The second purpose is to use the balloons as in-air laboratory to perform various experiments. Thus balloons can serve as platforms for research and development of flight control strategies, remote sensing and atmospheric measurements.