A few months ago, researchers at the Nuclear Research Centre received an unexpected request from two students; could we possibly miss a few dosimeters for a balloon experiment? Because we are curious by nature, and because we always encourage young people who want to explore the wonderful world of science, SCK•CEN immediately responded to their request.
Bas van Beusekom and Maxime Vandenbosch, final-year students at the Koninklijk Atheneum of Tervuren, managed to finalise their graduation project on the last day but one of the school year. They managed in the nick of time to bring measurement equipment up into the stratosphere using a balloon.
Bas and Maxime: “We opted for Sciences-Mathematics because we find it fun to explore things ourselves by conducting experiments and learning from them. This year, we were expected to carry out a research project on something we had studied in class in a science subject. We had to think up an experiment ourselves, and write a report on it. We’ve been fascinated by the infinity of space for a long time. We had fortunately already learned a lot about space in our geography lessons, and that's why Maxime and I picked this topic. We wanted to research some elementary differences between here on Earth and up in the stratosphere.”
The idea of also measuring cosmic radiation arose during a school visit to the Nuclear Research Centre. SCK•CEN lent them some highly sensitive dosimeters which are also used in space, on board the ISS, for example. Bas and Maxime also carried out a series of other observations during the balloon flight, which took the measuring equipment up to a height of no less than 30 kilometres.
Bas and Maxime: “We are planning to investigate three different aspects of the stratosphere. First of all, we look at everything that is observable. We investigate the height at which it first becomes dark, when the blue glow around the globe becomes visible, at what height the convex shape of the Earth becomes visible, and how fast darkness falls. We then want to investigate how the level of radiation compares to the radiation here on Earth. Is the radiation level higher or lower? Why would there be a difference? And much more. Finally, we also want to examine whether it’s possible to obtain more energy from the sunlight in the stratosphere than here on Earth. In this case, we also want to find out how such a difference would arise, and whether it might be more beneficial for people to generate energy from the sun at a higher altitude in the future.”
A first attempt to release the balloon near their school in Tervuren failed because the wind would have carried the balloon towards the airport at Zaventem. A second attempt was made on Monday, 29 June, this time near SCK•CEN in Mol. With some delay – a weather balloon holds more helium than expected – the balloon eventually became a small, white dot in the sky and disappeared. That was quite a relief after months of preparation and countless hours of excitement. All that remains now is to wait for the results …