Student’s Research Ambitions Soar Aloft With His Balloons
Engineering Sophomore Inspired by MIT Success Story Sends Experiments Skyward on a Tiny Budget
Oct. 11, 2011
Some students measure their success in A’s and B’s. Sophomore Cody Morris measures it in the miles he puts between his weather balloons and the Earth’s surface.
Mechanical engineering senior Cody Morris (far right) prepares to send a weather balloon 10,000 feet into the atmosphere with two cameras and a camcorder. (Photo by Akshay Harshe - The Mercury Staff)
The mechanical engineering student has been pursuing his balloon ambitions for two years. Now he hopes that all his hard work will pay off, in research grants and a career.
It has been Morris’ dream since childhood to work for NASA and send things into space, but his interest in weather balloons and the heights they can reach was sparked in early 2010.
After reading an article about a European professor who launched a simple balloon with just a camera attached to it, Morris decided to take a similar approach.
“I thought the whole idea of it was really cool,” Morris said. “I did a bunch of research on it for about six months, just looking into what all it would take to actually accomplish it all. After a while, I decided I wanted to try a launch of my own.”
Morris was both challenged and inspired by two MIT students who gained national attention when they managed to send a camera to high altitudes using a weather balloon. Incredibly, the students managed to launch the balloon for just shy of $150.
“I had the mentality that if two kids from MIT could do it, there was no reason I couldn’t do it,” Morris said.
Since then, he has sent weather balloons into the atmosphere on two different occasions, each time capturing breathtaking photos from 100,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.
“It is kind of a ‘wow’ factor to see photos that look almost like you are in space — photos you took from 18 miles in the air and show you the curvature of the Earth,” Morris said. “Most people appreciate that for what it is.”
Morris launched his first weather balloon on Sept. 5, 2010. It was simple, with little more than a camera and a GPS-enabled cell phone onboard.
The launch served as a test-run on a budget; Morris spent about $300.
“I did a balloon launch on Labor Day last year, which was semi-successful,” Morris said. “The GPS failed and we lost the balloon within the first 15 minutes. But a farmer found it about 16 days later and gave me a call, so everything was good.”
Once the balloon was recovered and Morris realized it was something he could really pull off, he set his sights even higher above the clouds.
On Sept. 26, Morris held his second balloon launch in Royse City.
He scheduled for two balloons to be launched early that Sunday morning; the Ardent Dawn and the Air Avant. The Ardent Dawn made it into the air, but the Air Avant fell victim to high winds, which effectively ended the balloon’s short journey. “The launch was a 50/50 success,” he said. “One of the balloons did not get enough lift from the windy conditions and ended up in power lines. The other balloon took off, however.”
The Ardent Dawn was outfitted with two cameras and a camcorder to record its journey, while the Air Avant’s payload contained a gutted out netbook equipped with the necessary sensors to monitor various atmospheric conditions, as well as cameras.
The balloons were each equipped with a GPS tracking device to help with recovery.
Under ideal circumstances, the balloons can reach heights near or above 100,000 feet, or nearly 19 miles, before popping and falling back to the earth.
If Morris can gather the funding, he hopes to make his balloons increasingly sophisticated as time goes on.
“I did a submission for the undergraduate research scholarship,” Morris said. “If I got the grant for that, I want to study ferrofluids at high altitudes.”
Morris is planning to send another balloon off this winter to make up for the Air Avant’s failed launch. He hopes to outfit that balloon with various weather sensors. (More information about Morris’ launches is available on his website.)
“This is a hobby, though I want to get into aerospace,” Morris said. “If I get into anything that has to do with going up to space, then this would definitely be the kind of start I have been looking for.”
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