Student balloon flight project tests innovative descent system and astrobiology experiment

Physics students from our University have flown a new high altitude balloon, achieving a successful test of their innovative descent system which could help in the development of stratospheric flights in the future.

In the latest flight, the system kept the balloon airborne for over 7 hours 15 minutes before a gentle and controlled landing in the North Sea.

Developed by students from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the system has the significant advantage of providing greater opportunities for scientific research across many fields. The system may also enable future balloons to be reused after recovery.

The flight was launched from near to Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire on Tuesday 27 June, and reached a maximum height of 23.5 km above Leicester where it hovered for several hours before drifting North East to land 20 km off the coast near the Humber estuary.

The latest balloon flight follows a flight earlier in the year which captured breathtaking images of the Earth's stratosphere.

The students, in collaboration with the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre (SRC), also flew a biological experiment with a harmless growth limited (uracil auxotroph) E.coli strain called OP50 acting as a food source for a wild, N2, strain of C.elegans nematode worms. The experiment planned to measure the C.elegans' growth rate when subjected to physiological stresses. 

The view from the balloon during its flight
Student Ryan Bradley-Evans said: “Astrobiology experiments like these are very important to not only allow us to figure out if life could exist elsewhere in the universe but also, in order to push the boundaries of human space exploration, we need to understand how biological matter interacts with extreme environments such as space. The stratosphere provides a good testing ground due to its low pressures, low temperatures and an increased UV levels.”

Student Robert Peck said: “We have gathered significant data on the performance of our descent system and we have high hopes for a much greater level of control in future flights.”

Two days after its loss at sea the balloon was found on a beach just north of the Humber estuary. All of the data logging and flight control systems aboard the balloon had survived and the students are now analysing the stored data to improve their system for future flights.