Near Space - STEM at the edge of space

Balloons regularly rise into Near Space where you have to look down to see the sky. Once the exclusive domain of scientists, a new generation of students, amateurs and entrepreneurs are opening Near Space to everyone. Credit: Nasa Balloon Program Office

The past week has seen several reports of hobbyists, students, and a new generation of start-up companies who have picked up where early stratospheric pioneers left off. They use high altitude balloons to explore Near Space, a region 30 kilometers above Earth's surface - and above most of Earth's atmosphere.

The Public Broadcasting Service's history series The American Experience will air a documentary about the original Near Space explorers. Space Men follows the pioneers of the 1950’s and 1960’s who rode high altitude balloons into the stratosphere.

The Space Race's drive to reach the Moon overshadowed Near Space, but a new generation of stratospheric pioneers hope to change that. The company whose engineering enabled a Google executive's stratospheric skydive wants to give people a less death-defying journey into Near Space. World View Experience plans to carry tourists into the stratosphere where they can spend several hours enjoying the view of Earth’s horizon - a thin blue line beneath the blackness of space. Similar companies in Europe and Asia could open a new era of Near Space tourism.

JP Aerospace has an even more audacious goal. They want to build “dark sky stations” in the stratosphere. These floating shipyards will build airships with 10-kilometer wingspans that will fly into orbit. The company relies on a small staff and a global team of volunteers to bootstrap its way into space. California ABC affiliate KXTV interviewed one of JP Aerospace’s youngest volunteers: 11-year old community college graduate Tanishq Abraham. He and his sister are testing the voice command system on JP Aerospace’s submarine platform for life support system development. JP Aerospace conducts dozens of Near Space balloon flights every year. Many of the flights carry Pong Sats, student experiments in ping-pong balls.

It’s a truism in space exploration that “space is hard”. As accessible as it is, Near Space isn’t easy. The Pegasus Mission is an amateur effort to test Internet of Things technology in the stratosphere. The forty-seven volunteers, many of them Microsoft software engineers, have combined several IoT technologies to bring real-time control and public participation to high altitude balloon projects. Despite early successes, the team has struggled to complete the project’s second phase. Bad weather blocked their first attempt last September. Last week they were seconds away from releasing the balloon when the payload deployed the parachute.

But near space is not limited to space agencies or corporations or even Microsoft employees. For a few hundred dollars anyone can send instruments suspended from a weather ballon on a flight into the stratosphere. The Global Space Balloon Challenge recruits amateur near space explorers to simultaneously fly balloons into Near Space. Last year sixty teams from eighteen countries took part. Many of the teams included primary and secondary school students to give them hands-on experience with a real engineering project. 

The News & Advance reported on a Virginia makerspace that plans to join this year’s GSBChallenge. Professional engineers will lead teams of students who will design an instrumentation payload to send into the stratosphere. Vector Space will host the 8-week project which will introduce students to coding, electrical and mechanical engineering, and 3D printing.

The Winnipeg Free Press wrote about the Canadian high school that has its own (near) space program. Garden City Collegiate’s students design and fly a Near Space experiment to experience science and engineering first-hand. Last year’s project included atmospheric sensors and vials of tardigrades - microscopic animals known for surviving extreme conditions.

The educational value of Near Space balloon projects extends to the university level. Second year engineering students at Duke University flew their first balloon 120,000 feet over North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer reports. They hope to build on their success to conduct more flights.

Montana NBC affiliate KULR reports on the way Montana State University uses Near Space balloon projects to teach the principles of spacecraft design. Sponsored by Nasa and the Montana Space Grant Consortium, these projects play an important role in the development of America’s aerospace engineering workforce.

A few hundred dollars and a few weeks of work can get you your own images from the edge of space. A little more effort and a little more money lets you conduct your own science experiments from the stratosphere. Soon a lot more money will buy you a ticket into Near Space. From space tourism to space education, Near Space is giving amateurs everywhere a taste for space exploration.