Engineering & Physical Sciences Club Preparing for Balloon Competition

WINTERVILLE—Pitt Community College Engineering and Physical Sciences Club members successfully tested a prototype of a payload carrier they will send to the far reaches of earth’s atmosphere this spring, as part of the 2018 NASA/N.C. Space Grant Community College High-Altitude Ballooning Team Challenge and Competition.

The test, which took place Feb. 6 behind the Walter and Marie Williams Building, involved students inflating a 350-gram weather balloon to a diameter of approximately three feet in order to lift a payload the contest requires. The balloon was controlled by a kite string reel and the payload by a custom remote control module.

“The flight test and video recording were successful,” said Kip Sloan, a PCC Associate of Science/Pre-Engineering student. “The club will perform more flight tests before the competition.”

Scheduled for April 7 at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, Sloan says this year’s contest requires teams to develop a “space package” consisting of a helium weather balloon, parachute and custom-built payload carrier. It will be the third time PCC has participated in the event.

Two years ago, Pitt students topped teams from nine other North Carolina community colleges to bring home the prize for highest altitude. Their balloon entered “near space,” climbing to 103,202 feet (more than 19.5 miles) before bursting and sending its payload back to earth. Using radio and GPS trackers, students recovered the payload a little more than six hours after liftoff.

Sloan said he and his teammates have focused on designing a payload carrier that is small and light yet capable of encapsulating all of the equipment the competition requires – cameras, a GPS tracking device, and sensors to record and transmit temperature, air pressure and altitude.

“The lighter the payload, the higher (the balloon) will float,” he said. “Our club determined that everything could fit into a 10-inch diameter ball and built a prototype. To add stability on decent and to slow down spinning, control fins were added to the top.”

PCC Science Instructor Joy Moses-Hall says the contest is much more than students learning how to make a balloon fly. After claiming the high-altitude award in 2016, she said team members were “required to do everything from earning an amateur radio license to testing equipment for low pressure and impact response to chasing the balloon halfway across the state.”

The product of a collaboration between NASA and the N.C. Space Grant Program, organizers of the balloon challenge say it is an exercise in hands-on experiential learning intended to help equip North Carolina’s workforce with a STEM-based education and skillset. The event also benefits NASA, which gathers data collected during the competition.