WSU balloon project measures air pollution

Friday , March 28, 2014 - 12:42 PM


OGDEN – Three Weber State University electronics engineering students accepted the real-world challenge of reliably and economically measuring pollution zones above Utah’s metropolitan areas. They spent more than 1,000 hours researching and developing a robust, yet inexpensive, device that could help the scientific community better understand urban inversions and even global climate change.

Seniors Michael Petersen, Wesley Mahurin and Jenifer Stoddard will present their project at WSU’s 10th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium and Celebration March 31 in the Shepherd Union Building. They will be among 150 of WSU’s undergraduate researchers who will share their research findings and experiences with the campus and community. The symposium represents a broad cross section of departments and disciplines, including science, health professions, social sciences, humanities and the arts.

The public is invited to attend the symposium, scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oral presentations will run from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 3 p.m. in Shepherd Union Ballroom C and rooms 312 and 316. Poster presentations are slated from 3 to 4 p.m. in the Shepherd Union Atrium. A complete schedule is available at

Petersen, an aerospace enthusiast, has been a member of WSU’s High Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research (HARBOR) program for three years. HARBOR employs a latex, helium-filled atmospheric weather balloon that travels to the edge of outer space, gathering scientific measurements from Earth’s atmosphere, such as air pressure and temperature, along the way. Since its maiden voyage in 2008, it has been launched 26 times, with the highest flight reaching 110,718 feet above sea level.

"HARBOR flights routinely reach altitudes well above 80,000 feet. This puts WSU student-built instrument payloads above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere — quite literally at the edge of space,” said John Sohl, HARBOR program director and WSU physics professor.

Balloon systems are valuable tools for understanding Earth’s climate and weather systems at altitudes not attainable by aircraft (which fly too low) and spacecraft (which orbit too high). At mid-range altitudes, there is a shortage — and need of — data for gas compositions and pollution levels.

Organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) take regular daily measurements of atmospheric wind speed and direction. They don’t, however, measure compositions. “The electronics to measure what types of gases and aerosols are present are heavy and prohibitively expensive, and there is always the risk that the equipment could be lost on descent,” said Petersen, explaining that NOAA, for example, typically only flies lightweight, low-cost, disposable devices.

Taking weight and affordability into consideration, Petersen, Mahurin and Stoddard worked alongside physics majors on the HARBOR project to develop a small sensor board. The board has a set of sensors to measure standard data, such as temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, but it also features the ability to add additional instruments, such as gas and aerosol sensors. The board, which plugs into a $35 commercially available computer, weighs only 40 grams (the weight of one small egg).

“Now that we have this new board that will support additional sensors, we are a step closer to one of HARBOR’s next goals — to create the actual tool, the sensor, to measure gas and aerosol,” Petersen said.

The board has accompanied four HARBOR flights. “As with most tests, there were challenges. There were issues with wiring, batteries and water landings,” Petersen said, “but we flew the new unit alongside an old unit and discovered that it recorded our data more reliably. The old system experienced regular data ‘blips.’”

For Petersen, this project presented numerous learning opportunities, and even opened the door to an internship at a leading technology company.

“We had to learn to build our own circuit boards, write our own computer programs, design our own circuits, apply for grants and manage a project,” Petersen said. “For me, this has been the most productive academic activity I’ve ever been involved in — it has been a truly amazing experience.”

Sohl explained that HARBOR is a goal-oriented, mission-based program styled after NASA flights. Students must work in teams, with budget, time, mass and power limits. “It is a very ‘real-world’ experience for future scientists and engineers,” he said. “Industry employers generally prefer graduates who have hands-on experience, especially in a teamwork-style project. Undergraduate research programs such as HARBOR give our students an advantage in the job market.”

Petersen anticipates that the HARBOR project will provide information to the scientific community and government regulatory institutions that will be beneficial to the long-term health and well-being of the world. He also hopes it will inspire more engineering students to get involved in their community and challenge themselves by applying their skills to real-world problems — “the big ones,” he said, “like energy, environmental and human health, climate change and food production.”

The next HARBOR balloon is set to take flight April 19 at 9 a.m. from Duchesne Municipal Airport, weather permitting.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.