'Worship the balloon' -- HARBOR program provides data, job skills

Sep 17 2013 - 11:00am

Images

Photo courtesy SHERI TRBOVICH
Students and volunteers prepare to launch a weather balloon that will take data-collecting equipment about 110,000 feet above sea level as part of a  HARBOR program project.
Photo courtesy SHERI TRBOVICH
Students and volunteers stabilize the balloon with their hands immediately before its launch. HARBOR program coordinator John E. Sohl said he and program participants jokingly refer to this posture as "worshipping the balloon."
Photo courtesy SHERI TRBOVICH
Students and volunteers prepare to launch a weather balloon that will take data-collecting equipment about 110,000 feet above sea level as part of a  HARBOR program project.
Photo courtesy SHERI TRBOVICH
Students and volunteers stabilize the balloon with their hands immediately before its launch. HARBOR program coordinator John E. Sohl said he and program participants jokingly refer to this posture as "worshipping the balloon."

OGDEN -- Weber State physics professor John E. Sohl calls it "worshipping the balloon."

It's that final moment when volunteers have their hands raised and pressed gently against the thin, latex surface, before the release of a weather balloon that will haul experiments and a camera to the upper limits of the stratosphere.

Volunteers gingerly step back, their arms still aloft and their fingers spread, as the helium balloon begins to rise the first few feet of its journey, to about 110,000 feet above sea level, about 305 times the length of a football field.

"When we launch it, it takes a huge amount of effort," said Sohl, coordinator of Weber State's HARBOR program. HARBOR (http://planet.weber.edu/harbor) stands for High Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research. Suspended under the balloon is data-collecting equipment, a control box, camera and an antenna that will help crews retrieve the styrofoam-encased equipment.

"Once the balloon leaves our hands, there's nothing else we can do," Sohl said. "We hope for the best."

The balloon travels beyond the range of unassisted human vision. When it reaches a height of about 100,000 feet, more or less, and a temperature of about 40 degrees below zero, the balloon will burst into shreds, and the payload parachute system will deploy.

"When it gets to the top, we are jubilant," Sohl said. "The burst is pretty fun, but we're not done yet."

The crews, mostly Weber State University physics majors and science enthusiasts from area junior and senior high schools, jump into their cars and trucks for the retrieval. They follow signals that provide the equipment's coordinates, and they scan the sky. The attached camera also gives visual hints to where the unit has landed.

One time, another traveler arrived first, Sohl said. He walked over to the camera, read the attached identification information, then kicked the camera and walked away.

"We watched the whole thing live," Sohl said, with a laugh. "I guess he thought he was going to be in trouble."

HARBOR members always get landowner permission before going onto private land to retrieve their equipment, and always get Federal Aviation Administration permission before a launch.

The HARBOR program was started in 2007 by Shane Larson, a gravitational astrophysicist who has since left WSU. Weber State physicists John Armstrong and Sohl ran the program together until late last year, when Armstrong stepped aside to focus on his own research, Sohl said.

"I'm the lone wolf now, and I'm going to keep it going as long as I can," Sohl said. "I'm in applied physics, halfway between physics and engineering. When the hardware question would come up, I had the skill set."

About 15 to 20 students have been involved with each of HARBOR's 26 free flights and five moored flights.

"It's been a great introduction to research, still being reasonably accessible to undergraduates," Sohl said. "We run it like a miniature NASA program, and students learn real-world and classroom skills."

Students build the parts needed for the missions, even those parts that could be easily and inexpensively purchased.

"I'm less interested in efficiency than I am in students learning skills," Sohl said.

Equipment suspended below the balloon takes a variety of measurements. One of the most useful measurements is of ozone levels, Sohl said. The ozone tests started last year, and if HARBOR can keep up regular flights and measurements, with five or six flights per year, it would make WSU the only entity in the western part of the contiguous United States to be taking such measurements, Sohl said.

Sohl said he's not sure how many more years he can keep HARBOR up and running, and funding is an every-year question. He is very grateful to the Val A. Browning Foundation, the program's primary supporter, he said.

"Their support is absolutely crucial."

WSU student Bryon Millet, of Layton, is an active member of the HARBOR Project.

"What I get out of it is the ability to work with modern equipment," said Millet, 31, a chemistry major with physics and computer science minors.

"I also get the experience of seeing how a project like that is managed, with all the teams working on different projects, all coming together for a successful launch. I think that will be beneficial when I start looking for work with a company. Those are important skills to have, how to be more effective on a team."

Millet said HARBOR has helped him refine skills related to writing programs and scripts, and extracting meaning from numbers received. The HARBOR trips help him apply skills and knowledge gained from classroom study, and the pressure of working with others has kept him motivated to do his best work.

"You don't want to be the weak link in the chain," he said.

HARBOR is going on his resume, said Millet, who graduates this spring.

Sohl said, of those students who worked closely with the HARBOR project, and who sought either employment or graduate school acceptance, the success rate is 100 percent.

"I'm not sure how long we can keep that up," he said, with a laugh. "But for now, it seems to be 100 percent. Students have told me that in interviews, the main questions asked were about their involvement in the HARBOR program. People working in related fields seem to be interested."

Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or nvan@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.

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