Three SPS students pose with the two payloads they designed.
Nickalaus Clemmer, Joshua Mathews, Matthew Keaney and Megan Joslin (not pictured) created two payloads from scratch and successfully launched them into space earlier this month.


Physics students reach the stratosphere

One question launched four CMU students down a path that would eventually lead to 18 miles above the earth — can you build something that can get to space?

At first daylight on April 8, Megan Joslin, Joshua Matthews, Matthew Keaney and Nickalaus Clemmer, four members of the CMU Society of Physics Students (SPS), successfully launched two payloads into space as part of a challenge issued by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, which is NASA-funded.

“Seeing the payload successfully launch was one of the most amazing and satisfying things that I have ever felt,” said Clemmer, SPS president and double major in physics and engineering.

There were fewer than 50 other groups launching on that cold morning in Eaton, Colo. Edge of Space Sciences and Colorado Space Grant Consortium representatives coordinated launch logistics and provided six balloons, which would each carry four to eight payloads into the stratosphere. Once the balloons launched, the groups had a chance to discuss the design of their payloads and challenges as well as what type of data each was collecting before gathering their payloads hours later on the Nebraska border.

Teams from universities around Colorado including Colorado State University, University of Colorado and Colorado School of Mines collected varying types of data. The SPS team talked to one group who collected solar radiation information that will be a focus for future projects, said Clemmer. The two SPS payloads collected temperature, humidity, pressure and accelerometer data through an onboard Arduino — an electronic device programmed to record sensor data collected from the environment during the flight.  

The four CMU students will use the collected data in a variety of ways, including tracking the GPS route of the payload to determine what the weather velocity is like 18 miles above the earth.  The other dynamic data collected during the flight time may be used as material in a future lab.

Successfully launching the two payloads into space was just a piece of the puzzle that started months earlier during the planning stage.

“The engineer in me thought simple and effective,” Clemmer said when speaking about the square design of the payloads.

The team planned the two payloads from scratch including design blueprints created in CAD and assembling them piece by piece. Along with the Arduino boards, the payloads contained GoPros, batteries and insulation since temperatures during the flight dropped as low as about -80 degrees Celsius.

“The four students that were involved with this balloon payload project gained practical skills, such as programming and instrumentation with an Arduino,” said Assistant Professor of Physics Brian Hosterman, PhD. Computer science teachers Karl Castleton and Warren MacEvoy also must receive credit for their involvement in this project, he said. They were originally awarded the grant money and brought the project to Hosterman and the SPS students’ attention.

Throughout the months of preparation, the team went through three rigorous reviews by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, including a final review the morning of takeoff during which a few groups were grounded due to safety concerns and lost pieces of equipment.  

“As a whole, the team put in nearly 500 hours into this project,” Clemmer said. He and the team put in the time and energy not for a class or special credit project but for the challenge and to answer the question, "Can you build something that can get to space?".

“It was the single most inspirational moment in my life,” said Joslin. “It made me realize I can literally reach the stars. As cliché as that statement is, not many people know they are capable of such a feat.”

The view from one of the SPS payloads of Colorado from 18 miles above the earth.

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