Soaring in Space: Citizen Science at 103,000 Feet
Last month, citizen scientist Marc Labriet and students from Valley Christian High School in Dublin, CA collaborated on a special high altitude weather balloon project to retrieve images from near space as well as test theories on gamma rays and radiation repercussion yields. The above photo was taken by a camera attached to one his balloons, which was cleared for launch by the FAA. Experiments built by two teams of students from the high school were also launched with the balloon’s payload.
The first balloon launched by Marc, named Furiousity, was unable to be located for retrieval. The second balloon, aptly named Revenge, soared to 103,000 feet and delivered some spectacular images of near space. The video journal of the process can be viewed here. More details about the Revenge launch as well as the summaries of launches leading up to its success are given in more detail on the website Beyond 62.
Marc has been working on projects like this since late 2010, gaining valuable expertise in the process. Marc noted, “Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.” Reading through the launch summaries on Beyond 62 – it’s clear that those mistakes led to the success of Revenge. The first launch demanded a steep learning curve with weeks of preparation and 26 days to recover it. Revenge was built, launched and retrieved within 24 hours. Marc spoke more with QUEST about what he has learned along the way with these launches.
What got you interested in building payloads for balloons destined for near space?
Building and launching "Near Space balloons" started in the late '60s but it has become increasingly popular in the last 10 years.
Initially I did it for the same reason I think more and more amateurs are doing it. It's the easiest and cheapest way to do something space-related that will produce jaw-dropping results. Most people stop after one launch. I wanted to make the system more reliable, more sophisticated and I wanted to get other people as excited about it as I was, so I continued launching high altitude capsules.
What was an unexpected reward or insight?
A failure often teaches you more than a success. It's very frustrating because you feel like you have wasted all this time and money, but it's actually this experience that will make the next one a great success.
How many projects have you launched to date? What did you learn from each?
I have launched 4 capsules so far. I have learned a lot from each one of them. One taught me to not rush the launch even if I am late, another one taught me the systems engineering part of a "Near Space" flight, what works, what doesn't work. Finally, I learnt that the descent dictates everything (layout and technology).
How did the citizen science component of the project come about?
I wanted to focus on the system module of the capsule and not the payload. It gave the opportunity to get other people involved in my projects. So I contacted a few high schools and asked if some students would be interested in building high altitude experiments that I would fly for free. Melissa Greer from Christian Valley High School in Dublin, CA was immediately interested and we started brainstorming ideas with the students. It's a first step. I'd love to help them launch their own capsule next year.
What advice would you give to someone taking this on as a citizen science project?
Don't wait until you know everything to start building one. It's not as hard as some describe it. Do it with a friend or a relative and you will have an awesome experience.
After this experience, Marc has embarked on a new direction in his career. He is currently attending the International Space University's Space Studies Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.