Centaurus High Physics Club Tackles Spaceplane Payload Project


Students at the Centaurus High School Physics Club in Lafayette are embarking on an ambitious long-term project to help research climate change in an under-observed part of the atmosphere.

The Physics Club submitted a proposal for Dawn Aerospace’s “Paint Your Plane” competition in 2020, winning the opportunity to build a payload for the New Zealand company’s space plane.

Centaurus Physics Club member Kylam Lints looks at his laptop on Monday while working on ideas to fix an issue that was found in the club’s originally designed ambient air exhaust system. Students attend Centaurus high school in Lafayette. (Timothy Hurst / Personal Photographer)

The club focuses its research on direct sampling and analysis of the mesosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere, where there have been few sightings due to the specialized aircraft and instrumentation required to sample. air at this altitude.

“It’s a tough project for sure,” said physics club co-chair Hannah Floyd, a junior. “We’re trying to figure out all the different parts and how they fit together. We collaborate with many researchers. We are all STEM-loving kids and contribute to scientific research. It’s exciting. “

The physics club works in partnership with local researchers at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab, as well as with Ball Aerospace mentor Nate Showalter.

Showalter said he encourages students to be curious and creative as they take on the project’s many challenges.

“There is more than one way to solve a problem,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what happens. It’s a pretty exciting project.

The students hope to take an air sample at an altitude of between 60 and 80 km to calculate greenhouse gas levels, which could help determine how long the gases reside in the mesosphere. They are working on the design of a measurement system, then will analyze and interpret the air samples collected with the help of scientists in the region.

Members of the Centaurus Physics Club, left to right, Kylam Lints, Travis Ellis, Ball Aerospace mechanical designer and club mentor Nathan Showalter, Liam Jenner, Sofia Berry and James Clemson brainstorm ideas for solving a problem on Monday in Centaurus High School in Lafayette. (Timothy Hurst / Personal Photographer)

Kimberly Becker, patron of the physics club’s faculty and professor of physics and chemistry, said the club met remotely last school year, working on planning for the project. The students started to meet in person again during the summer. The project is expected to last at least two school years.

Floyd and club co-chair Stella Payne, a senior, said work on the project intensified during in-person summer meetings with around 10 participating students. Now that the school year has started, the club’s membership has grown to around 25 students.

“We like that stuff,” Payne said, noting that most of the club’s members are also in the school’s engineering program. “We have already done a lot.

Students work in three main areas: air intake, data analysis, and engineering. For the air intake, they tested an air pump donated by a company in Broomfield, but a resin used in the air pump produced its own greenhouse gases, forcing them to either scrap or scrap it. risk contaminating their air sample. The students recently chatted online with two NOAA researchers about the pump failure.

Centaurus Physics Club sponsor Kim Becker, left, shows club members, left to right, Luke Carson, Gracyn Wierl and Stella Payne an experiment built in 2015 that represents an example of an experiment of similar size which they should be close by while the students build an up-box model for the club’s ongoing experiment. (Timothy Hurst / Personal Photographer)

Senior Liam Jenner said the challenge is that the air is so fine in the mesosphere that it is difficult to suck enough air into the cartridge.

“It’s really hard to compress it and get enough air for a sample,” he said.

The two NOAA scientists, Bianca Baier and Isaac Vimont, said they and some of their colleagues agreed to work with the students because they are interested in greenhouse gas research and want to encourage young people to get into climate science.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” said Vimont. “It’s really difficult to take samples from the mesosphere. We are delighted to see the students take on the challenges.

The club’s data analysis group is examining “huge amounts” of satellite data from NASA to provide a comparison of the data they hope to collect. The engineering group is figuring out how to make all the components work together and fit into a 10 x 10 x 30cm box that can’t weigh more than 4kg, or just under 9 pounds.

“It’s very small,” Payne said. “This is one of the biggest challenges.”

The group recently built a small wooden box to give them a better idea of ​​the scale, while another student used a 3D printer to create a sample air collection canister. They also plan to launch a fundraising campaign this winter, as well as call on local businesses to donate the instruments they will need.

Although the project takes a lot of extra work and determination to overcome setbacks, students at the club said they are excited to contribute to climate change research.

“It’s pretty cool that we’re doing something new, and it’s through high school kids,” Jenner said.

Junior Benjamin Ashbaugh added, “It’s fun. All this engineering and physics is really interesting. We will find out.

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