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A freshman project achieves many successes

What started as a residence hall challenge turned into a project that made potential lifetime friends out of six freshmen and also gave them an unforgettable early taste of thinking and acting like engineers.

Mizzou Residential Life and the Wolpers Hall Men of Engineering Learning Community sponsored a contest to launch a weather balloon that would take pictures of the curvature of the earth. A single team tackled the project, which did not go without a hitch, or even a couple of hitches. But the successful outcome more than made up for the snags and pre-launch apprehensions of freshmen Andrew Perry, Tim Hezel, Pedro Ruiz-Fabian, Drew Kitson, Mark Hansen and Logan Forsythe.

Balloon launch

“With the variety of ideas we all came up with, it was difficult to make a group decision for what direction to go,” Hansen said, adding that after a choice was made, the group encountered “constraints and variables.”

With the budget the group received for the undertaking, they purchased a digital camera, a cell phone to track GPS coordinates, foam insulation to build a protective box for the camera and phone payload, a weather balloon, parachute line and helium.

Among their original considerations were the facts that the entire apparatus had to weigh less than two pounds, the camera would have to automatically take photos at prescribed intervals and there would be a loss of contact with the cell phone above certain altitudes. The group worried about how the temperatures would affect the phone and camera, whether the parachute would deploy properly and, depending on where it landed, whether they would even be able to recover the blue foam box.

Getting the camera to automatically take a photo every 15 seconds proved to be a major hurdle.

“We had the camera for three weeks and we were on the verge of ordering a new one, then Drew got to work,” Hezel said.

Kitson found a program online — Canon Hackers Development Kit, or CHDK — that gave them access to extra settings on the camera and they successfully wrote a script that enabled the camera to do time lapse photography.

Balloon launch and photo taken by the camera as it ascends

To test the potential impact of cold temperatures at high altitudes on the phone and camera, they put them in isolation with dry ice to -70 degrees, only to find out the extreme cold caused both devices to shut off. They decided it wouldn’t get that cold and tried not to worry about it.

“We had a lot of discussion about releasing the parachute and the landing,” said Hezel.

They first worried if they didn’t somehow lightly secure the parachute until it needed to be deployed, it would flap freely and interfere with the photographs, a problem they remedied with tiny rubber bands. They then were concerned that when the entire apparatus was in freefall, the balloon would drop below the parachute and cover the blue box.

They did some test drops from the roof of MU’s Virginia Avenue Parking Garage and were pleased with the results.

As the day of the launch approached, they discovered that helium was very expensive. Because Kitson had family ties to Bell Medical, Inc., the company donated the helium.

On May 4, the group — along with their advisors, Resident Instructor Rick Whelove and Associate Professor Roger Fales of mechanical engineering — traveled just east of Columbia to Andrew Perry’s home for the launch. Lift-off was scheduled for sometime around noon, but the balloon exploded as they were inflating it.

The team immediately regrouped and by late that afternoon had another balloon, more helium, and thanks to Forsythe’s foresight, attached some light sticks to the box in case they had to locate it in the dark.

Though the second launch was a success, the parachute deployed immediately, but with no ill effects.

“We lost cell phone reception at 10,034 feet. We expected it,” said Hezel. “An hour and two minutes later, we gained reception. It was coming down.

“We left here around 7:30 and Logan had a paper due at midnight. He brought his laptop and we stopped at a McDonalds with Wi-Fi, and he finished his paper,” Hezel said.

GPS coordinates put the payload in the middle of a field near Hermann, Mo., and the glow of the light sticks confirmed its location.

“We all went crazy at that point,” Hezel said.

The balloon had traveled just over 45 miles in 94 minutes. The team tracked it at speeds up to 42 miles per hour and estimated it reached heights of between 80 to 90 thousand feet.

When it landed, it traveled under power lines and landed within 500 yards of the Missouri River and 500 yards from a airport runway.

The project team and their mentors, back row, Mark Hansen, Logan Forsythe, Associate Professor Roger Fales and Resident Instructor Rick Whelove; front row, Andrew Perry, Tim Hezel, Pedro Ruiz-Fabian and Drew Kitson.

“We couldn’t have been luckier,” said Hezel. “I feel that we have learned a lot throughout the entire project and maybe the two most important things were how to communicate/work as a team and how to adapt to new conditions and problems quickly and make decisions effectively in order to continue with our project.”

Ruiz-Fabian said he was able to apply several things he learned in his classes.

“Prior to this project, all six of us were great friends. This further bonded us as a group. It is an event I will remember as one of the most fun and exciting events of my freshman year at Mizzou,” Hansen said.

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