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Zack Metcalfe photo

Zack Metcalfe photo

A team from Royal Military College travelled to Wingham’s Richard W. LeVan airport last week to test space communications equipment. Here, the team launches the equipment using a helium balloon that would take it close to space, about 100,000 feet.

Space communications project a success

On Wednesday, March 21, Canada’s space communications program took a major step forward – at the Wingham airport.

A team from Royal Military College in Kingston, headed by Dr. Ron Vincent, who teaches in the physics department and is developing payload instruments and mission concepts for future Can-X nanosatellite missions, came to the Richard W. LeVan Airport in Wingham to launch a weather balloon carrying communications equipment.

The aim of the project was to test a receiver that picks up transmissions from commercial aircraft, with the next step being to put it in space. As Vincent explained it, “Imagine air traffic control from space.” The team travelled to the Wingham airport and used a helium balloon to get the briefcase-sized box into what Vincent termed near space, about 100,000 feet up. That’s well over twice the altitude normally travelled by aircraft.

Major Richard Van Der Pryt, who commanded the operations end of the project, said prior to the launch, the balloon flight would be about three hours, with the helium balloon growing gradually larger in the thin air until it burst, at which point a parachute would deploy and bring the box back to earth. The anticipated landing area was towards the south and east.

As it turned out, the project went off without a hitch. None of the things that could have gone wrong (part of the balloon wrapping around the parachute, for example) did go wrong, and the equipment was safely recovered.

Van Der Pryt said the balloon burst at 11:12, just under two hours from the 9:31 launch at the Wingham airport. It reached an altitude of 95,500 feet. The equipment travelled 23 kilometres, landing three kilometres south-west of Walton. “The ADS-B receiver and recording system worked well, collecting all but the last 90 seconds of the flight,” said Van Der Pryt. ADS-B stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast and is a technology that is being used for air traffic control.

He said the flight is considered to be a complete success.

The Wingham location is perfect, Vincent said. Unlike Kingston, Wingham is surrounded by relatively flat farmland, making the equipment easy to retrieve, thanks to GPS. And there are plenty of aircraft overhead, en route for Toronto.

In addition to data on transmissions, Vincent also hoped to get good photographs from a camera included in the equipment sent aloft, showing the earth’s curvature.

It isn’t the first time the Wingham site has been used. Two balloons were sent up in 2009.

The other members of the team who participated in the balloon launch in Wingham were RMC graduate physics students Mike Earl and Alex Cushley; and fourth year students officer cadets Michael Baskey, Malcolm Grieve and Daniel Stolzman.

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