By STEELE HAUGEN
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
To Infinity and beyond! (Or over 120,000 feet and back.)
After two days of delays, a special helium balloon finally launched from the Madras Airport Thursday morning.
The project was meant to see if the space station can drop an item that high and have it land safely down to earth.
“The goal was to mimic a re-entry, the last part of a re-entry, to see if we could activate the capsule and more specifically transmit the data, so we could look at it,” said University of Kentucky Professor Alexandre Martin.
That data-filled capsule is a key piece of equipment scientists need to get safely from the International Space Station to Earth.
A group of students from the University of Kentucky, with help from Martin, designed and conducted the experiment.
They chose Madras because of the geography and weather and they needed a large open area to the east for the capsule to land.
If it proves successful, it could mean astronauts send the capsule back by way of an interspace trash chute, of sorts.
“It is going to de-orbit, and our capsule will be with the trash,” Martin added. “So, as everything goes into a giant ball of fire, our capsule is equipped to resist that, it has a heat shield, that is what we are trying to test, so it will survive the breakup event and start separating from the giant ball of fire and re-enter and start transmitting data.
The test flight was delayed for multiple days due to high winds.
“If the wind speeds are a little too high we can endanger the balloon envelope, it is very fragile once it is attached to the earth,” said Near Space Corporation President Kevin Tucker. “Once it is up in the air it is fine. We just want to make sure there is no damage to that and can do everything successfully.”
Even with calmer winds Thursday morning, Tucker says the launch was still a bit tricky.
“What you may not have seen is right at the last minute the wind direction shifted very slightly, which is typical with low winds,” Tucker said. “So, we actually reversed our launch direction by 180 degrees in a few minutes and then we went.”
So, was this test a success?
“We did receive the data this afternoon when the capsule finally dropped and everything seemed to be working exactly like we intended, which is good news because we are nearing our next flight,” Martin said.
Their next experiment involves three capsules launched from the International Space Station in August, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in November.