Thursday, June 19, 2014

Just in time, a science honor's rhyme!

Hey everyone, I just wanted to share a poem that I wrote during Mayterm about science honors:

Science Honors
By: Olivia Morse

We were eleven from the start,
We each learned to give our part.
To the sky, land, and sea,
We looked for where climate change might be.
Al Gore, Muller, and many more,
We learned what scientists thought was in store.
We studied albedo, currents, and radiation,
Then electronics, programming, and circuits took our concentration.
We would send up a balloon into the stratosphere,
Equipped with sensors to report the data that was there.
We were split up into teams of three,
The Flying Monkeys, Team Sparkles, and Team Maple Leaf we would be.
Long nights were spent programming and soldering boards,
Finishing proposals and straightening out cords.
We went on road trips to see how far our radio connection could go,
And watched parachutes fall to the ground below.
As launch day approached we worked through the night,
Before long our balloons were in flight.
Up, up, and away they flew through the blue sky.
We watched the GPS to see how far they would fly.
On the back roads of Pennsylvania we followed the GPS,
Putting the minivan and cars to the test.
Some groups found their balloons high in a tree,
Others still wonder where their balloon could be.
Although we were left tired from launch week,
We looked back on the knowledge that were able to seek,
Learning about Fresnel zones from our tech guy Jay,
Gaining programming experience, and how to solder the correct way.
Nothing can compare to the friendships and connections that brought us together,
The memories of late nights in Paine, smoothie runs, and movie watching will be with us forever.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Up Up and Away!

Team Maple Leaf packages their balloon. 
Where to begin? It seems like the past week was one giant work day with short naps and snacks in between. Should I go back to the 5 minutes before launch when the SD card was recording meaningless symbols and the program was still not complete? Maybe 2 hours before when the proper antenna cables had not arrived? How about Thursday at around 1 am when Maple Leaf's circuit was being resoldered because the SD card had to be close to the arduino? Or 11pm when Team Sparkles' radios wouldn't connect again? In actuality, we should go all the way back to the first day of class. It has been 9 full months of preparation. Countless hours of hard work and dedication. Little sleep and 1 all nighter added to the adventure. The morning of launch we ran on adrenaline finishing the final preparations. Between last minute programming, final circuit tests, and outside set-up, it sometimes felt like it would never come together. We just had to remain calm, and as suggested by the teaching assistants, never stop thinking. If we started rushing or freaking out we would make careless mistakes.

Team Maple Leaf cheers as their balloon soars away. 
Finally at 11:00, the professors said we had to go with what we had. It was time to launch. After rushing out to the quad each group gave a small description of their project and what exactly they were studying. We started to fill the first balloon with helium and attach the package to the parachute. Maple Leaf was the first one to let go and watch their balloon fly away into the atmosphere (watch the video here!). Cheers of excitement and relief filled the air as it quickly drifted off. It had worked. Data was streaming through the radios and the launch had been successful!
Team Sparkles fills their balloon.
Next it was Sparkles turn. They had radio connection but their data was coming through as weird symbols. Due to radio troubles the night before they had decided to change their transmission rate.
Turns out they had a program with the incorrect baud rate. Andrew ran to re-upload a new program and then their balloon was on its way. Lastly, the Flying Monkeys were having trouble getting a radio connection. After much fiddling they heard the words "You have a connection!".With that they began to package up for send off. (watch the video here!)Sarah quickly realized that the nichrome wire cutdown system was already heating up. Luckily they were able to tie another piece of paracord to secure it.

Flying Monkeys examine their circuit. 
Three balloons successfully in the air collecting data was an incredible accomplishment. As they sailed away we knew that no matter what happened it would be OK. There was nothing else we could do. It didn't matter if nothing worked, or even if radio connection cut out. We have learned an incredible amount over the past 9 months.
Flying Monkeys watch their balloon disappear. 
At the beginning of the year, we would not have been able to write complex programs or build circuits. Though frustrating at times, we developed problem solving skills by trying various combinations until we knew what the problem was. When everyone is irritable from very little sleep, grace and positive attitudes are the only way to remain calm. Our Mayterm class is coming to a close but the discussion is not over. Since launch there has been nothing but talk of "this would have been so much easier" "they should do this next year" and "why didn't we think of that?!". Though no longer part of the program we will always be thinking about our project and a better way to do it. Who knows, maybe we'll even get to launch another balloon someday.

Friday, May 30, 2014

3,2, 1.... LAUNCH!!!!!

Today is the big day! The one we have waited for all year. Two semesters and nine months of preparation, research and testing culminate in a few hours of balloon flight time. At 11am each team will give a brief explanation of their balloon before filling it with helium and releasing it into the atmosphere.  There will be projectors set up displaying data for those in attendance to watch. The balloons should be in the air for 3-4 hours. Once it reaches a certain pressure at a specific altitude the balloon will pop, and the parachute will deploy. Their estimated trajectory is south toward Tioga State Forrest in PA. If you live near there and could keep an eye out for them that would be greatly appreciated! After lunch the balloon hunt begins. Each of the 3 groups will follow the GPS coordinates in search of their balloon. There is a high probability that it will be stuck in a tree which could make things interesting.
If you are in the Houghton area, we'd love to see you at the launch tomorrow morning! If not, no need to worry you can still be a part of launch day. This live page will show the GPS coordinates of each balloon as it travels and this one has live data stream to graphs for each group. Up Up and Away!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

It All Comes Down to This...

It's finally here! Launch week is upon us with all of its colorful circuits, sleepless nights, and bipolar radios. Each team has soldered their circuit together with sensors in place. The program is being tweaked and finalized with all of the necessary bells and whistles by Michael and Andrew.  These two have stared at a computer screen for about 17 hours each day! Figuring out what is wrong is rarely easy, fast, or intuitive.  Exhibit A: The SD card reader that saves our data would not work when the GPS was plugged in. Once the pressure sensor part of the program was removed, both worked properly. If you can explain this then you are clearly smarter then 11 college freshmen. If you can't, well you still might be smarter than 11 college freshmen.

The radios seem to have a mind of their own, or maybe they just didn't like Michael and Andrew. Each team has 2 radios. One for in the balloon and one for on the ground. We also bought a 7th in case of emergency.  After much searching we found two hills .8 miles apart with a line of sight. 4 of the 7 sensors worked during that test. A small improvement from the 1/4 mile range before, but certainly a step in the right direction. Each test the radios seem to work better. The next time they reached a range of 3 miles. For the next test Kayla and Bub went on a windmill hunt. Dr. Rowley said that you could see the windmills in Bliss from the hill on Centerville Road. After leaving the circuit with suspicious looking  Yagi antenna  (good thing we live in trustworthy Houghton) along side of the road (clearly marked as radio testing equipment and not a bomb of course), they drove in the direction of the windmills.

Unfortunately Bub did not exactly remember how to get there and so they wandered around back country roads an hour and a half. Finally Bub said "turn down this road and we'll just head back". A minute later there were windmills all around. You always find something when you least expect it I guess. Their good luck shortly ended when there was absolutely no signal. Discouraged, they drove back to where they had left the other circuit. Turns out the antenna had blown over and disconnected the circuit. Maybe just maybe, the radios could still work. The second trip to the windmills was much faster because they knew how to get there. Using a program that Michael wrote they were able to collect data on the signal strength and data corruption rate. A strong signal at 7.5 and 5 miles away brought hope to the situation. You would think $600 radios that are supposed to go 30 miles should work extremely well  up to 15 or 20. Will they be able to transmit data through the entire flight of the balloon? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Things we've learned: 
1) 2 voltage regulators in parallel explode when put under high current draw. 
2) Our 3.7V batteries actually hold 4.2V and easily burn out battery clips. 
3) Powering an Arduino through Vin and the computer cable will fry it. 
4) When Ye Olde Antenna Lab in CO sends you an antenna kit, there will be assembly required. 
5) Going to bed when the birds are chirping is a very late night. 
6) In reference to 5, sleep is for the weak.

Tomorrow we launch! We have had months of planning, and now we are ready (or nearly so) to let our balloons fly into the atmosphere. Come out to Houghton College tomorrow at 11:00 am to watch!


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Big Balloons and High Roofs

Parachute Testing
If you think scientists don't get to do exciting things, then you haven't met our science honors group. On Monday Jordan, Olivia, and Kayla ran a parachute test from the roof with Dr. Rowley. Who doesn't like throwing things off roofs?! We used a high speed GoPro camera to videotape the falling package from the ground. After measuring the building using the windows as a form of ruler, we were able to calculate (frame by frame) the distance traveled per .001 second. We wanted to determine the terminal velocity and acceleration with varied weights. The variables of wind and difficulty of measuring a tall building made our data unreliable. You would expect the speed to increase with weight since it had the same parachute drag. Though we did not see the trend we expected, or a trend at all really (remember, it's science) we were able to get a rough estimate of how fast our balloon will be falling. 

Radio Home Base 
Meanwhile in RadioLand Michael and Andrew have been getting some mixed signals. With Michael on the roof with one radio and antenna, and Andrew walking around campus with a second set, they lost connection after about 1/4 mile (2 furlongs, 80 rods, 4.5 football fields, etc). That's great for a local campus radio station! The bad news is the stratosphere is more like 20 miles away which is quite different. Clearly the radios need some alterations. 

We have also been running tests on the laytex balloons that we will be filling with helium. In the gym we were able to measure how much force will be exerted on the string between the lunchbox (with all the components inside) and the balloon during liftoff. The last thing we need is for the string to break and our balloon to fly away without the attachment. After talking in some squeaky helium voices we filled one all the way up to 20 feet in diameter with air, much larger than we will need. This allowed us to analyze the pressure inside the ballon with respect to volume. The original intent was to fill one until it popped to find the maximum volume. The instructions claim they can stretch to 30 feet in diameter! Sadly, due to a lack of time and low ceilings, we were not able to pop the balloon. But hey, you can't have too much fun in one day right?! Especially since fun activities tend to be dangerous. NOTE: To all concerned mothers: All 11 of us are still alive... even if we haven't had enough time to call recently.

For reassurance, you should be sure to like our Facebook page because there are lots of new photos! Hopefully your work days haven't been as long as ours...bonus points to whoever guesses how many hours I spent in Paine today. :) 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mayterm Mania

So, I'm sure you've been wondering what the science honors group has been up too! Last week began our Mayterm session which means that our balloon launching date is going to be here soon. We are at Houghton until June 6, constructing our balloons, calibrating sensors, debugging programs, and learning how to analyze data. Currently, our balloons are planned to be launched on May 30th, so we have less than two weeks to finish our project! This past week we have been testing circuits and trying out our sensors. We also had a statistics lecture each day. Although we are extremely busy, we have also enjoyed playing frisbee on the quad, bike rides, and movie watching after class.
Sarah and April soldering parts.
Kayla and Jordan with their beautiful test circuit.
Dan intensely looks at sensor data.

Dan and Ruthanna constructing a circuit.

Team Maple Leaf conference.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Conquering Nature!

While many students headed home after finals for a nice long summer, the science honors group had a 6 day break before returning for our Mayterm session. Four of us (Kayla, Bub, Dan, and Michael) along with Whitney Farrand took a backpacking trip to the Adirondack Mountains. On Tuesday we drove to Deerfoot Lodge to pick up bear cans for our food (we can open them, bears can't). Things didn't go as planned and we actually had to spend the night in the cabins there instead of at our first campsite. The next morning we drove to our trailhead. Despite being way behind schedule we hiked super fast, made up the distance, and made it to our second campsite. Our leanto was near Bushnell Falls  so we went exploring and enjoyed the waterfall.

The next morning after fueling up on oatmeal, we were ready to head toward Mount Marcy. As elevation increased we began to see snow around 3000 feet. As long as we stayed on the packed section of snow in the middle of the trail (called the snow monorail) it was manageable. Once we hit 3600 feet the snow was deeper and harder to manage. Our feet were sinking more frequently into the deepening snow, making things difficult. Luckily, we were prepared with snow shoes thanks to Dr. Rowley's suggestion! After snowshoeing the rest of the way to the junction we dropped our packs and headed up Marcy. There was no one at the top so we were able to enjoy the view and the dinosaur gummy snacks we had packed. (Every hardcore hiker packs gummies.)
We considered using our snowshoes for traction on the way down, but quickly realized there was a much better way. With a running start we glissaded down the mountain face. Wearing t-shirts and pants it was like sledding in 60 degree weather. After a lunch break and picking up those heavy packs again we traveled on to Indian Falls.
A few more miles to our campsite and we were ready for some hot chocolate and sleep. Luckily our good luck with weather continued as we tackled Phelps on Friday. The trail was one mile of 3 feet thick ice. Though more difficult without crampons, we were able to carefully climb our way to the summit with only a few falls. 
At the top we saw rain clouds in many other places, but clear skies over our heads. 
Like good scientists assuming the storms may be headed our way, we made the slippery descent to the bottom, once again wishing we had crampons. After another lunch of peanut butter and jelly tortillas, we were ready to hit the trail again. The original plan was to drive back on Saturday morning. We were such fast hikers that we were able to finish the loop and drive back on Friday night. 

There is no way to describe how we started 5 hours behind schedule and ended a day early. What else would you expect from a group of determined academics? According to Michael's GPS we traveled a total of 28 miles and averaged 2.5mph. Our elevation range was between 2046 and 5354 with 5500 feet of climbing total. That can only be referred to, as conquering nature.