Going Up! Capitol Balloon Experiment Club rises to greater heights


The Capitol Balloon Experiment Club (CBEC) isn't filling balloons with helium. Nor are members making balloon animals for kids. This bunch of not-so-ordinary students attending a not-so-ordinary college has developed a real-life outlet for an array of engineering and technical skills learned in the Capitol classroom.

With the guidance and support of Professor Angela Walters, the students in CBEC have literally taken high-altitude experimenting to new heights. CBEC was developed with a mission; to provide a way for Capitol students to use their smarts by developing and testing high-altitude sensors and instruments, designing structures to house these instruments, and to effectively analyze data collected from the project.
"I really am impressed with the enthusiasm that the students have brought to this endeavor. I had to do very little to get the club moving and I really enjoy watching them realize that what they learned in a particular class, such as microcontrollers, can be applied to this project," says Walters. "It has been a pleasure, as the faculty advisor, to see what they have accomplished in such a short period of time and what they are planning for the future."
Unlike some student groups at other colleges, CBEC caters to all of Capitol's students regardless of major or emphasis. There is a place and a need for intelligence from all areas. Astronautical engineering students work on flight dynamics, payload (a balloon-like device used to house sensory instruments) design, and on-board power systems while computer engineering students develop data storage systems and on-board programs to permit autonomics events. Electrical engineering students also develop sensors and long range communications systems.
Within the past year, CBEC has released its first payload design in several tethered and un-tethered launch series. Here's how it works: during the first launch, the payload balloon is let loose about 400 ft. into the air and anchored to the ground by weights. Students then observe how the payload will function at high altitude and make appropriate changes to the design of the chassis. The second launch is similar, meant to give students a chance to check that instruments inside the payload are working properly and efficiently sending data back down to earth.
The success of the test launches enabled the club to begin their ultimate goal; the un-tethered launch of a payload into the atmosphere. After release, the payload will stay in the air for about an hour collecting data and then will fall back to earth, with a total launch time of about two and a half hours. Keeping the devices intact and working after touchdown is important, so developing tracking and recovery procedures is a key ingredient for success.
The Club's organization is very clear, and all of the members get a chance to participate in each needed role throughout the launching series. A flight director, launch team, recovery team, payload team and two tracking teams function as a unit to ensure a successful launch.
CBEC's president, Marcel Mabson, says that experimenting with payloads and high-altitude data collection is a great way for Capitol students to better themselves and to gain experience in their chosen fields. "We work in groups to design separate parts of the payload system and it's exciting when everything is tied together," he says. "Meetings can get very technical at times and we have learned how to clearly express our ideas and enhance those ideas based on constructive criticism."
Professor Walters adds that, unlike many class projects, the balloon experiment is unique in that it has an open-ended time frame. "The students are required to develop their own goals and success criteria for the project. They have to take responsibility for things like budgets, management, group dynamics and scheduling."
Following a presentation from Professor Walters this spring, and due to the group’s hard work and dedication, CBEC was awarded $1,270 from the Maryland Space Business Roundtable Board of Directors. The sponsorship will allow the popular club to continue their high-altitude experiments.
Within the next year, CBEC plans to meet their goals of at least one successful un-tethered launch. Future strategies include finding a way to keep payloads in the atmosphere for longer periods of time, perhaps even weeks, for more consistent data collection. "This might take a while to figure out, but we would really like to be able to have continuous data transferred back to us on a regular basis so we have more cohesive results" says Mabson.
For more information on the Capitol Balloon Experiment Club, please contact Marcel Mabson (mamabson@capitol-college.edu) or Professor Angela Walters (awalters@capitol-college.edu).