Student space balloon project reaches new heights

  • Students to develop low-cost telescope to observe the sun
  • Telescope will be lifted 30-40km above earth’s surface by a helium balloon
  • Data collected could help us develop defences against solar flares

Students from the University of Sheffield have won a prestigious international competition to develop a low-cost telescope to be lifted into space by a helium balloon to observe the Sun.

A European Space Agency programme, The REXUS/BEXUS competition (Rocket Experiments for University Students/Balloon Experiments for University Students) saw the project team design and fabricate a lightweight telescope that will gather data from the Sun’s atmosphere.

The telescope will be hoisted up into the Earth’s lower atmosphere, called the troposphere, to observe the Sun by a high altitude helium balloon.

By lifting the balloon 30 – 40 kilometres above the surface of the Earth, the telescope will avoid the distortions produced at higher levels of the atmosphere and produce higher quality imaging than traditional ground-based solar observations.

The team, dubbed SunbYte (Sheffield University Nova Balloon Lifted Solar Telescope), will use innovative manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing to make their design come to life and to produce an alternative to large and expensive telescopes.

Knowledge of the Sun’s dynamic atmosphere is crucial for understanding its interactions with the Earth and the local space environment, known as Space Weather. Images captured by the team will be of important scientific value.

The student-based project is being led by Yun-Hang Cho from the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering and supported by academic Dr Viktor Fedun from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering. The project has gained cross-faculty support from Dr Gary Verth from the School of Mathematics and Statistics and at a national level from Northumbria University, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Hull.

Yun-Hang Cho said: “What excites me about project Sunbyte is the potential for protecting our way of life. The knowledge gained will enable us to develop effective defences against solar flares and expand our knowledge of the universe.”

He continued: “Sunbyte places the involved University of Sheffield students at the forefront of science and engineering, giving them the chance to learn through experience. I am very proud of the work everyone has delivered and hope to continue leading them to success.”

The balloon is due to be launched in October 2017 from the Esrange Space Centre in Northern Sweden.