Space Owls plan trip to Alaska

Members of the Space Owls pose for a group photo during a preliminary launch in the High Desert in February. The team will use observations and data from the preliminary launches to prepare for research in Alaska. (Courtesy of Space Owls)

By Cameron Wisdom | Staff Writer

The Space Owls are gearing up for a trip to Fairbanks, Ala. in late August to conduct a variety of experiments in relation to sound and atmospheric conditions.

The five-member team has been planning, preparing for and conducting preliminary research for the project since summer 2013, and will make the trip north between the summer session and fall semester.

The research project itself was entirely conceived by the student members of the program and is based on current scientific research being conducted on the aurora borealis and whether or not it emits sound frequencies at high-altitude.

Aurora borealis, or northern lights, occur when solar winds blowing charged particles at earth collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere and result in an electro-magnetic light show in the sky. The aurora borealis typically occur in the northern latitudes around the globe and are at their peak during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Team leader Carina Kaainoa, 24, mathematics major, explained that the cosmic research group was privileged to choose their own research project during the conception phase.

“The beauty of our team is that we’re able to come up with our own research that we want to do and then we’re able to pursue it,” Kaainoa said. “Last summer we were looking for ideas, and I came up with the idea to go up to Fairbanks, Ala. and launch a [weather] balloon during the aurora borealis.”

When Kaainoa brought the idea to the group, they all became excited at the prospect heading north to conduct their research.

The team quickly realized that even with all of their experience in the field of science they knew very little about the science of sound and audio technology, a critical component to the success of their research.

After a brief on-campus search, they enlisted the help of Stephen Andrade, 33, a recent graduate of the audio-recording technology department who brought the technical experience the team needed to help design the sound related experiments and understand the findings.

“He was brought on the team to help us with recording sound, not only to help us go about doing that but also analyzing the results,” Kaainoa said.

The team’s research will focus on launching a high-altitude balloon with a payload containing sound and recording equipment that will approach the 50-mile high light show and record a constant frequency to measure its various changes as altitude increases.

“One of the things we wanted to do was send up a constant sound signal, and consistently record that signal to see what kind of anomalies will occur at higher altitudes,” Andrade said.
True to scientific form, the team has already conducted preliminary launches in the high desert to help them better understand how the balloon will travel in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and to determine how the payload will be affected by the constantly changing conditions associated with the launch.

During their second launch conducted in the High Desert in particular, a rough launch sequence led several pieces of equipment to shake loose inside of the Styrofoam payload which compromised the recording experiment.

The team learned a great deal about the design of their payload that day and have made design improvements that they believe will hold everything in place with a greater success rate.

Eventually, the differences in atmospheric pressures both inside and outside the balloon will cause it to burst, and the payload will return to earth with the help of a parachute. The payload is equipped with a GPS locating device and a radio-transmitter to help the team pinpoint its exact location when it lands.

“What’s interesting is that none of us really knew too much about what we’re doing here now, so it took a little time to get acquainted with the whole process,” said Andrea Lopez, 22, computer engineering major.

“This is actually true for all the science teams, that no one really knew what they were doing or what to expect, so we just had to put the hours and study up on everything.”

“There’s no instruction manual,” Andrade said. “But what we plan on doing is creating a way to pass down the knowledge and the process on how you put this together, we want to document as much as possible.”

“This is how NASA does their research on the outer atmosphere,” said Laura Sandoval, 22, biomedical engineering major. “This is just a cheaper way to do it.”

The prospect of heading to Alaska to conduct their experiment is one that excites each member on the team, and they believe it is an opportunity to do something they will never forget.
“This is definitely a bucket list opportunity,” Andrade said.