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A team of Engineering students from the University of Strathclyde have
completed the first phase of an innovative 'near-space' flight test and
technology demonstration program - the first of its kind in the UK.

Using a helium balloon, the fifth-year students launched an advanced craft
to altitudes of over 35 km, more than triple that of a commercial airliner.
At this point, the device is above more than 99% of the atmosphere and is
exposed to a near-space like environment.

In addition to returning stunning images of the tenuously thin atmosphere,
and full-HD video of the entire flight, each of the four launches recorded a
vast array of scientific and engineering data from temperature and pressure,
to humidity and battery voltage.

The data was transmitted to the Strathclyde Spacecraft Tracking and Command
Station, STAC, located within the University campus, and operated by
undergraduate students.

Dr Malcolm Macdonald, Associate Director of the University's Advanced Space
Concepts Laboratory, who led the student activity said: "The use of low-cost
helium balloons allows our students to design, develop and deploy their own
payloads, and to fly them in a 'near-space' environment, giving the students
an opportunity to validate their design concepts in a realistic space-like
environment. The concept is hugely popular with students as it really pushes
them hard and provides them with valuable practical experience of the
knowledge they have gained throughout their course.

"The photos that have been taken from the balloon are spectacular, but are
not the goal of these flights. Rather, the flights allow us to build
flight-heritage, knowledge and help develop the highly skilled professionals
fit for the modern world.

"Our students are hugely ambitious, so they don't want to stop here and are
currently attempting to get funding to develop Scotland's first ever
student-built spacecraft. These flights, and future ones alike, provide a
great low-cost way of proving the students design concepts will work before
launching spacecraft into orbit.

"Within the University we have some of Europe's leading space technology
researchers working on frontier research into visionary space systems. This
ranges from new and novel orbits for future Earth Observation platforms, to
advanced autonomous on-board planning algorithms for Europe's ExoMars rover,
and a leading role in the development of the new UK Space Agency's first
ever spacecraft, UKube-1, to be launched in the second quarter of 2012. So
it's great to see students being able to learn from all this great research
which is going on around them.”

Due to the high-knowledge value of the flight payloads each flight must be
carefully planned and simulated to consider the wind speed and direction to
be sure that the payload does not land on water.

In addition, the students must be careful to comply with real-world
restrictions and regulations, such as co-ordinating launches with the air
traffic controllers. To date, launches have taken place in Newton Stewart,
Cumnock and North Berwick, with the payload coming to rest as far afield as
South Edinburgh and Northumberland. Radio signals and smart phone technology
are used to view the GPS coordinates of the balloon and when it bursts a
parachute safely carries the payload back to land.

The success of the project looks set to have an impact across the University
with other departments now interested in using the technology. Dr Macdonald
added: "With some very minor design tweaks we can create a period of
‘freefall' before the parachute deploys and this absence of gravity opens up
some great, low-cost fundamental science research opportunities which we are
now investigating.”