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Press Release for Tuesday, March 10, 2015

UNF Launches Ozone Sensor Payload During High-Altitude Balloon Flight

Media Contact: Joanna Norris, Director
Department of Public Relations
(904) 620-2102

In conjunction with World View, the commercial balloon space-flight company, and United Parachute, a University of North Florida physics professor and his student team launched an ozone sensor payload as part of a high-altitude research balloon and parafoil flight, flying from the edge of space at a record-breaking height of 102,200 feet.

“The accomplishments of this flight further our two main objectives of manned spaceflight and advancing research,” said Taber MacCallum, World View’s chief technology officer. “The successful flight of the parafoil at this altitude brings us closer to flying private citizens safely to the edge of space and also allows us to continue our research and education program by providing safe access to the near-space environment.”

The flight’s payload, launched from Tuscon, Ariz., in mid-February, contained experiments from two universities, UNF and Montana State University. UNF flew experimental technology to measure the ozone gas profile in the stratosphere using a nanocrystalline gas sensor array. The payload landed in the New Mexico desert and was recovered without any damage.

Dr. Nirmal Patel, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics, is the principal investigator of the project, along with his student team, comprised of team leader Ken Emanuel, an electrical engineering senior; Brittany Nassau, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and physics; and junior mechanical engineering students Bernardo Craveiro, Matthew Linekin and Joseph Silas.

Ozone is typically measured by a bulky, expensive instrument called a Dobson Spectrometer, which requires skilled scientist to operate it and is time consuming to measure the data. The UNF team’s ozone gas sensors are made of low-cost nanocrsystalline-thin films that are miniature in size, only 2 mm by 2 mm. These sensors can measure gases in the stratosphere with remote real-time monitoring.

“Real-time measurements can give the actual value of concentration of ozone gas in every second. If the ozone level decreases below 4 ppm, then there will be more possibilities of harmful ultraviolet light passing through the stratosphere and hitting the earth,” said Patel. “As a result, there will be more possibilities to develop skin cancer, premature aging of skin, eye problems and immune suppression due to exposure to the ultraviolet light as well as damage to the ecosystem.”

The ozone sensors were fabricated, tested and calibrated by the UNF student team. The payload consists of a total of 24 sensors, comprised of three different types of gas-sensor arrays: an array of high-sensitivity ozone sensors, an array of high-selectivity ozone sensors and an array of gas-reducing sensors. Additionally, there were three photo sensors on the payload to detect the presence of ultraviolet light, a pressure sensor, three temperature sensors, one current and voltage sensor and one GPS.

In the end, everything performed as the UNF team anticipated. “All sensors on the payload functioned and provided the expected data, providing important information regarding the ozone profile in the stratosphere,” explained Patel, who is now analyzing the in-depth data recorded during the flight.

Emanuel, also a UNF research assistant, was excited to have the opportunity to apply the knowledge he’s gained at UNF to design the payload and to have the chance to work with World View engineers.

“The opportunity to work with the engineers from World View during systems integration, testing and flight was a rewarding and amazing experience,” he said. “As an aspiring engineer, it’s both a dream and a challenge to successfully design and fly a hi-tech system to the edge of space and back.”

This isn’t the first time Patel has sent sensors to near space. He has been working on the development and fabrication of a gas-sensor payload for the last eight years. There have been seven successful high-altitude balloon flights since 2008, with flight durations varying from 10 to 32 hours at the altitude of approximately 130,000 feet. All flights were made on NASA-HASP balloons.

Additionally, Patel has provided his nanocrystalline gas-sensor arrays to several universities, such as the University of Central Florida, Louisiana State University, University of North Dakota, Iowa State University, for use in weather balloon flights.

UNF, a nationally ranked university located on an environmentally beautiful campus, offers students who are dedicated to enriching the lives of others the opportunity to build their own futures through a well-rounded education.