Current and former members of Brookdale’s Physics and Astronomy Club took their education to new heights this semester by launching a homemade, camera-equipped probe into the stratosphere.
Automotive engineering major and club co-president Anthony Mauro joined former club president and current Rutgers University mechanical engineering major Roland Riim to build and deploy the probe, dubbed “DALEPi,” 100,000 feet above the earth’s surface on Nov. 24.
“The objective was to receive back photos of the curvature of the earth,” said Mauro, who first began working on the project with Riim nearly two years ago. “So, after receiving approval on two separate proposals to Student Life and Activities, we were able to get the project rolling.”
The probe, bearing a Raspberry Pi computer, a high definition camera, a GPS system and a radio transmitter, was launched with the aid of a helium-filled weather balloon over Lancaster, Pennsylvania on the morning of Black Friday. Mauro and Riim, who were joined at the launch by academic tutor David Sita, projected that DALEPi would travel east and land near Jackson, New Jersey, where club members Nicola Sorbara, Noam Hezrony and Joe O’Reilly were waiting to receive it.
Soon after launch, however, the winds of fate changed. While driving back to New Jersey and tracking live telemetry data from the probe on a laptop, Mauro and Riim noticed that DALEPi had flown noticeably higher than their 100,000-foot goal. As a result, it was now racing through the stratosphere at speeds in excess of 470 miles per hour.
“With this difference in height, along with enormous horizontal speeds, it changed our predicted landing to 12 miles off the coast of Spring Lake,” said Mauro.
“As we nervously traveled back east, it became more and more apparent that we would be losing our payload. Somewhere over Howell, the weather balloon finally popped… When we were 45 minutes outside of Spring Lake, we lost it at sea in the newly predicted area. In total, DalePi traveled almost 160 miles across the map.”
Despite the unexpected water landing, and the potential loss of the probe, Mauro and Riim said they still learned a lot from their inaugural foray into near-space.
“In total, we received 840 data points back from the device,” said Mauro, who earned a $5,000 NASA STEM Fellowship last year for his achievements as a Brookdale student. “I was able to plot this information into Google Earth to get an image of the actual path traveled… We also received a few breathtaking images.”
For Riim, the DALEPi project served as both a learning experience and source of renewed inspiration.
“We plan on doing it again,” said Riim, who graduated from Brookdale last May. “Now we know what not to do. We know to put more helium in the balloon, and next time we are going to try to record video as well.”
As for the missing probe, which likely still contains a wealth of high-resolution stratospheric photos, Riim and Mauro are not giving up hope.
“We calculated the ocean drift speed, and we think it should wash up at some point,” said Riim, noting that the DALEPi unit is housed in a waterproof, white styrofoam cooler, about the size of a toaster. “If anybody finds, please return it.”
Learn more about Brookdale’s Physics and Astronomy Club here.
Check out more photos of DALEPi’s maiden voyage here.
[Photos and video courtesy of Anthony Mauro]