Search Marshall


News Releases

Text Size

NASA, Student Researchers Launch High-Flying Lab Experiments
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)
News Release: 05-094

NASA dodged prolonged foul weather over New Mexico Saturday, June 18, to successfully launch an innovative new "laboratory in the sky" -- one carrying unique atmospheric experiments designed and managed by student scientists from four American universities.

The experiments, developed by undergraduate researchers from Pennsylvania State University in State College, Montana State University in Bozeman, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., rode aboard NASA's "Deep Space Test Bed" gondola. The experiment facility, designed to study cosmic radiation at the very edge of space, performed flawlessly. Over time, it will help NASA develop new means of protecting hardware and human crews as America ventures further into the cosmos.

The aluminum structure -- about the size of a standard passenger car -- was lifted to an altitude of 120,000 feet, or nearly 23 miles, by NASA's 40-million-cubic-foot scientific balloon. The engineering test flight was launched from Fort Sumner, N.M., a former U.S. Army airfield 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque, and lasted approximately 9 hours. It landed in a forest near Reserve, N.M., some 365 miles away.

The test flight, part of NASA's Space Radiation Shielding project, is managed by the Exploration Science and Technology Division at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The gondola was prepared for flight by Marshall and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, working at the Huntsville-based National Space Science and Technology Center. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., manages the Balloon Program for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The student experiments helped NASA test the floating lab’s structural integrity, power system and data management system -- while enabling the universities to conduct real-world atmospheric research of their own. Their involvement was made possible by NASA’s Student Launch Initiative Program, a hands-on educational program sponsored by the Marshall Center and the National Space Grant Consortium, an affiliation of more than 550 universities, companies and education institutions dedicated to inspiring and training the next generation of America’s space workforce. Experiment proposals were solicited nationally. Those received were screened by NASA prior to selection for flight.

The project stemmed from NASA’s desire always to fly the most efficient test flights. In months to come, the gondola will fly polar routes to enable study of cosmic rays, strong blasts of radiation energy crossing the galaxy at nearly the speed of light. Studies are conducted near the North and South Poles because strong deflection of cosmic radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field hinders effective research at latitudes closer to the equator.

First, however, the science gondola required flight testing. Rather than conduct a dry run with an empty gondola, NASA and the Consortium invited science students from its partner colleges and universities nationwide to propose experiment payloads for the flight -- ones pursuing other areas of NASA research.

"This is a terrific way to help inspire and train the next generation of space explorers, while helping NASA fully test a versatile, valuable science resource," said NASA engineer Mark Christl, project manager for the Deep Space Test Bed.

The National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, will return the gondola to the Marshall Center for analysis. The experiments will be returned to their student investigators.

The Penn State team sought to detect trace chemicals in the atmosphere, revealing how pollutants rise and travel in the higher regions of the sky. Students from Montana State used Geiger counters to study fluctuating environmental radiation and its impact on the weather balloon itself, in order to show how prolonged exposure can adversely affect high-flying science platforms over time. The team from Huntsville sought to be the first researchers to continuously measure a high-altitude balloon's skin temperature, which can be affected during flight by direct solar radiation. And the Auburn University team used magnetometers -- instruments that gauge the strength of a magnetic field -- to simulate how data might be recorded over another world altogether: Mars. The Red Planet's patchy, fluctuating magnetic field does not protect its surface against high-energy radiation the way Earth’s magnetic field protects our world. Such research could help identify areas of Mars where human explorers would be safest from radiation exposure.

For more information about NASA’s Space Radiation Shielding Project, visit: