TitleMSU BOREALIS Scientific High Altitude Ballooning Request Date2012-11-27
DepartmentMontana Space Grant Consortium
RequestorAngela Des Jardins Phone406-994-6172
Campuses Bozeman Billings Havre Great Falls FSTS Extension MAES
Cross Depts Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, Math, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Land Resources and Environmental Science, Earth Science, Chemistry and Biochemistry
Proposed Dates Start: May 1, 2013 End: April 30, 2016
The BOREALIS program has operated as part of the MSGC since 2001 engaging students with the opportunity to Design-Build-Fly-Analyze science and engineering projects to near space. The central focus of BOREALIS is undergraduate workforce training, with unique hands-on training, using weather balloons to transport student experiments to altitudes of 100,000 feet. BOREALIS remains a strong and vibrant program today, providing students with individualized research opportunities to design, build, fly and analyze their own experiments. Funding is sought for developing the next generation of training through the use of zero pressure balloons.
The BOREALIS program embraces many of the principles within the 2012 Strategic Plan. BOREALIS has contributed, and seeks to continue to contribute, to the success of Montana State University. The two strategic goals to which BOREALIS is most closely aligned are “Learning and Integration”.

“Learning – MSU prepares students to graduate equipped for careers and further education.”

“Integration – By integrating learning, discovery and engagement, and by working across disciplines, the MSU community will improve the world.”

BOREALIS provides individualized research opportunities in the aerospace/atmospheric sciences:

Individualized research enhances student success.
- Research experiences improve critical thinking skills
- Individualized instruction personalizes the University experience, which promotes self esteem and student retention.
- Research participation enhances higher level opportunities. Many
BOREALIS participants advance to participate in NASA internships, undergraduate research assistantships and REUs.

The alignment of BOREALIS to MSU’s strategic goals may be best demonstrated by the following student quote from Nathan Martin (BS Physics 2009):

“BOREALIS is a unique and immensely beneficial undergraduate program at MSU and was instrumental in my decision to pursue a graduate degree, the subject of that degree, and the skills that set me apart in my interviews at top tier universities and has given me a leg up throughout my research work. As an undergraduate driven lab, BOREALIS provided a rare environment for me to learn, in a hands-on manner, the process of formulating a strong hypothesis and taking it through the planning, execution, and analysis steps. Most labs that undergraduates work in are not undergraduate focused and students only see the execution or analysis phase of scientific research, but BOREALIS allowed me to see the complete pipeline of taking a scientific question through completion and these skills have helped set me apart from my colleagues and has given me a head start learning these concepts before entering graduate school. These hands-on experiences helped me to realize my desire to do scientific research and also that I needed to transition from space science to a different field of physics research. The unique environment created by BOREALIS, along with the expert mentorship by the MSGC staff and Dr Knighton, especially, sets this program apart as a valuable and progressive program for inspiring undergraduate research and is an excellent investment for the university to realize it's mission of educating students who will positively impact the Montanan and broader communities.”

Nathan Martin is currently working at UCLA Biomedical Physics Interdepartmental Graduate Program as a Graduate Student Researcher in the Gatti Lab.

Funding Type: One-Time Only Funding Base (3-yr Recurring) Funding
  FY13 FY14 FY15 Base ($) OTO Startup ($)   FTE;
Salaries       18000       
Benefits       113       
Materials & Supplies       8800       
Travel       4000       
Contracted Services              
Other Operations              
TOTAL 30913     
Please comment, if necessary, regarding cost and requirements.

Salaries – stipends for three MSU student interns per year at $6,000 each for a 10-week summer internship

Materials and supplies – Helium for high altitude balloon flights ($300 per flight for six flights per year); $7,000 for supplies to build experiments (e.g. electronic components, sensors, data loggers)

Travel – Rental of vehicles from Motor Pool, gas, etc. for six flights per summer

Due to budget reductions in the National Space Grant Program and hence Montana Space Grant, we are seeking here to institutionalize the successful BOREALIS program.  Without the support for these cornerstone summer internships, the program will be weakened.

Describe the Proposal

The BOREALIS (Balloon Outreach, Research, Exploration, and Landscape Imaging System) program has been in existence for over 10 years.  Since BOREALIS is a mature program, we introduce ourselves with a historical overview of our program and review our students’ accomplishments.   Recognizing that no successful program can remain static and must grow, the final section describes an exciting new direction for BOREALIS where we propose to develop advanced ballooning capabilities in the form of zero pressure balloons. Through this proposal solicitation we seek supplemental funding to continue to be able to offer BOREALIS to current and future MSU students.


Overview of BOREALIS

The BOREALIS program has operated as part of the Montanan Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) since 2001 engaging students with the opportunity to Design-Build-Fly-and-Analyze science and engineering projects in a near space environment. BOREALIS was conceived and initiated by the late Professor William Hiscock (Physics) and Professor David Klumpar (Director of Space Science and Engineering Lab). The central focus of BOREALIS is undergraduate workforce training, with a unique hands-on experience they cannot get in the classroom, using conventional latex weather sounding balloons to transport student experiments to altitudes exceeding 100,000 feet...  BOREALIS remains a strong and vibrant program today, providing undergraduate students with individualized research opportunities to design, build, fly and analyze his or her own experiments. Focusing on “one student – one project” promotes having students take ownership of their projects.  Creativity, passion and freedom to learn from failure are important tenets of BOREALIS.   Freedom to fail is not about proceeding unprepared, but is about pushing students to reach beyond their play-it-safe comfort level and to explore the limits of their creativity and ability. 

BOREALIS operates year round and has lab space in the Modular Labs behind the Physical Plant.  Anyone, Freshman through Senior, can participate in BOREALIS.  There is no selection process to participate during the academic year.  Paid summer internships are competitively offered with preference given to academic year participants.  Since projects are predominately student initiated “what we do” is constantly evolving.  The overarching goal of BOREALIS has always been to get the students engaged in an independent project. 

Three Main Focus Areas

Paid summer Internships are the centerpiece of the BOREALIS program.  These 10-week internships generally focus on higher level projects.  Past projects have included an experiment to capture cosmic dust, a balloon-borne experiment flown as part of HASP (High Altitude Student Platform managed by Louisiana State University).  MSU participated in HASP for three years and flew experiments in 2007, 2008 and 2009.  More recently the students worked on a balloon-borne solar telescope (STEVE), which was intended to be another HASP project.  Projects started under the summer intern program are often continued into the academic year as Senior design projects, senior capstone, and University Honors Thesis projects.  Below is a sampling of some of summer research projects that spawned into senior capstone or senior research projects for university credit.

Example Individual Projects:

  • Conrad Martin – “Balloon-borne weather station”.  Integrate temperature and pressure sensors, GPS position reports into a microprocessor controlled data acquisition system. Phsx 490.
  • Jerry Nahring – “Creative Design and Fabrication of an Environmental Chamber for Near Space Payloads”.  Jerry designed and built and a thermally controllable  vacuum chamber. University Honors Senior Thesis Project, UH-490.
  • Courtney Peck – “Determining the Relationship between Cosmic Rays and the Atmosphere”.  Courtney used two Geiger counters operated in coincidence mode to detect muons (relativistic particles produced by cosmic rays). Phsx 490.
  • George Council, Chris Miller, Luke Zanella, Victor Barbosa – “HASP Narrow Field Alignment System”.  Balloon-borne solar tracking device.  ECE/ME Senior Design Project.


Academic year engagement continues through hands on projects.  Interested students have the opportunity to propose and work on individualized research projects, while team building exercises and BOREALIS competitions are used to engage students not prepared to commit to a research project.   New students are trained, by the continuing BOREALIS members in the use and operation of our balloon flight systems.

Example BOREALIS  Competitions:

  • Academic year 2011-2012  - Highest Rocket Competition
    • Only ground rules were that the students had to use a specified engine and were required to provide scientific proof (using a pressure sensor) of the maximum height that their rocket achieved.  Most student groups worked on weight reduction and aerodynamic considerations, but one group constructed a mechanically assist launch mechanism (they didn’t win due to technical problems, but won on creativity).
  • Academic Year 2012-2013 Most Accurate Glider Competition. 
    • This year’s competition is to design and build a radio controlled glider that will land closest to a preselected target.  Gliders will be dropped from a height of 150 feet from a tethered balloon.  Gliders must be self-constructed (no purchase models), students must provide on board record of time aloft and the total weight must be less than 5 lbs.

MSGC’s primary outreach vehicle to many different groups is BOREALIS.  Below is a listing of outreach activities the BOREALIS group has participated in the last several years.

Example Outreach Activities:

  • Monforton 4th grade egg drop
  • Minority Serving Institution tethered balloon training
  • Montana Apprenticeship Program (MAP) student engagement
  • Science Olympiad
  • First Lego League
  • First Tech Challenge
  • Astronomy Day
  • Transit of Venus
  • National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition
  • Secondary student project mentorship

The following student testimonials articulate the philosophy of BOREALIS.

Sanford Moore (current MSU-Mechanical Engineering student) “One of the best things about BOREALIS is that it is more about trying something than it is about succeeding. Even though the program encourages you to get your projects to work, they are always willing to let you try something difficult and learn from your failures as well as your triumphs.”

Luke Humphrey (BOREALIS Intern 2010, BS in Mechanical Engineering 2010, currently a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology as a NASA  2012 Aeronautics Scholarship Recipient)

“It’s hard to quantify exactly what value each piece of an education contributes to the whole. Yet, looking back, my involvement with the MSU BOREALIS High-Altitude Balloon Program stands out as one of the best parts of my undergraduate experience. It gave me a chance to meet and get to know other like-minded students, and work on one of my first completely open-ended design projects. Perhaps more importantly, BOREALIS was a lot of fun, and provided a necessary break from classroom work where I could begin applying what I had learned to real-world problems for the first time. “


Proposed Future Work of BOREALIS

Zero pressure balloons are currently used by NASA for all of their scientific ballooning flights and differ from conventional latex weather balloons in that the balloon envelope never fully expands to the bursting point.  Zero pressure balloons are designed to ascend to an altitude where they become neutrally buoyant, referred to as float altitude, and remain there until the flight is terminated.  The extended flight time afforded by zero pressure balloons significantly enhances the complexity of the scientific and engineering experiments that can be deployed. 

BOREALIS has been a leader amongst Space Grant institutions in conducting safe and reliable balloon flights.  BOREALIS has an amazing 100% payload recovery record.  We are not aware of any other Space Grant institutions that are operating zero pressure balloons and are excited to take on this challenge and continue our leadership role in academic ballooning.

Describe the broader impacts and benefits of this proposal

The extended flight times, expanded launch locations and more stable platform afforded by zero pressure balloons is expected to enhance collaboration between BOREALIS and existing research groups on campus.  Zero pressure balloons can be thought of as short duration, low altitude satellite platform, which will provide organizations like SSEL an affordable and time effective means for testing their satellite projects.   We also anticipate more interaction and collaboration with MSU groups working in the areas of remote sensing and radiation hardening.  

We like to believe that through BOREALIS we have had a profound influence on our students and offer as evidence of this success a series of student testimonials (past and present) that are provided below.  The individualized attention that each BOREALIS participant receives helps shape his or her future in a positive and nurturing way.  While we promote education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields our real focus is on the individual student and helping them choose the best path for their career even if it is not in engineering or the sciences.  As is evidenced below in our listing of past summer interns most have gone on to pursue careers in STEM fields.  

We have succeeded in attracting a surprisingly diverse group of participants. (See listing below)  More recently we have started to collaborate with American Indian Research Opportunities (AIRO) and have included a Montana High School Apprenticeship (MAP) student as part of our summer program each of the past two summers.   BOREALIS has a strong commitment to outreach activities, which have included joint activities with students at Chief Dull Knife, Black Feet Community College, Fort Peck Community College, Aaniiih Nakoda College, Salish Kootenai, and Stone Child Colleges fostering a stronger relationship between Montana State University and the Tribal College system.

Below is a list of BOREALIS Summer Internship Participants for the past 5 years.

Summer 2008

  • Shraddha Rane (BS Physics) Graduate student in Health Physics at Idaho State University
  • Amelia Getty (Electrical Engineering Student)
  • Jennifer Susan Hane (BS Electrical Engineering, 2010 and MS Electrical Engineering, MSU 2012), Goldwater Scholarship Applicant – 2009, Montana Society of Engineers Gold Medal nominee – 2010, now at SEAKR Engineering in Boulder, CO
  • Aaron Kreitinger (BS Physics, 2009) Bridger Photonics
  • Conrad Martin (BS Physics, 2009) Graduate student in Physics Education at Western Washington
  • Michael Lenander (BS Physics, 2008) MS Physics, 2012 UC Santa Barbara

Summer 2009

  • Nash Reilly (BS Electrical Engineering, 2012) Product Engineer, Micron Technologies
  • Jon Torodovitch (BS  Physics)
  • Jennifer Susan Hane (BS Electrical Engineering, 2010 and MS Electrical Engineering, MSU 2012) Goldwater Scholarship Applicant – 2009, Montana Society of Engineers Gold Medal nominee – 2010, now at SEAKR Engineering in Boulder, CO
  • Jayson Nissen (BS Physics, 2010) Graduate student in Physics at University of Maine.  Goldwater Scholarship Applicant 2008, 2009.
  • Shraddha Rane (BS Physics,) Graduate student in Health Physics at Idaho State University
  • Conrad Martin (BS Physics, 2009) Graduate student in Physics Education at Western Washington 
  • Nathin Martin (BS Physics, 2010) Graduate student in Physics at UCLA, MSU Award for Excellence recipient – 2009.
  • Jerry Nahring (BS Mechanical Engineering, 2010) Montana Society of Engineers Gold Medal nominee – 2010

Summer 2010

  • Luke Humphrey (BS Mechanical Engineering, 2012) Graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech, recipient of NASA Aeronautics Graduate Scholarship.
  • Colin Young, (BS Electrical Engineering, 2012) Graduate student in EE at Montana State University
  • Jeff Allen (BS, Chemistry and Mathematics (Carroll College), 2012) Graduate student in Applied Mathematics at University of Colorado – Boulder.
  • Drew Moen (BS Electrical Engineering, 2012) Graduate student in EE at Montana State University
  • George Council (BS Electrical Engineering, 2012) Graduate student in EE at University of Michigan
  • Courtney Peck (BS, Physics 2012) Graduate student in Physics at University of Colorado – Boulder, NSF Graduate Fellowship recipient
  • Sam Sorenson (BS, Computer Engineering, 2012), Test Engineer, Micron Technology
  • Nathan Little (Current student at MSU in Electrical Engineering)
  • Jayson Nissen (BS Physics, 2010) Graduate student in Physics at University of Maine.  Goldwater Applicant 2008, 2009.   

Summer 2011

  • George Council (BS Electrical Engineering, 2012) Graduate student in EE at University of Michigan
  • Jason Bishop (Senior, Chemical Engineering)
  • Virginia Price (Senior, Physics)
  • Randy Plummer (Fort Peck Community College, withdrew from school due for health reasons. Randy is on the waiting list to receive a liver transplant)
  • Marianne Addison (Salish Kootenai College, Junior at MSU in Civil Engineering)
  • Dave Reisland (Senior, EE)
  • Sam Sorenson (BS Computer Engineering, 2012), Test Engineer, Micron Technology
  • Joseph Lutgen (BS Computer Engineer 2012) Engineer, Micron Technology
  • Charlene Weatherwax ( MAP Student)

Summer 2012               

  • Jason Creighton (Junior, CPE)
  • Matthew Vanek (Junior, CPE)
  • David Reisland (Senior, EE)
  • Tim Basta (Junior, ME)
  • Garrett Peebles (Senior, ME)
  • Brendan Lawrence (Miles City Community College, Sciences)
  • Jordan Smith (MAP student)

The following student quotes each speak to the effectiveness of the BOREALIS program on student participants:

Jayson Nissen (BOREALIS Intern 2009 ,2010, BS in Physics 2010, currently in graduate student in Physics at the University of Maine)     “There are three key gifts that I received from being a part of BOREALIS. 1.) I developed a wide array of skills and experiences that have been critical in my becoming a scientist and which could not have been developed in the classroom. 2.) I realized that the greatest joy I found was not in acquiring and learning new skills and knowledge but in sharing them. Subsequently I am in graduate school working toward my PhD in Physics Education Research.  And 3.) The amazing people I met, the experiences we shared and their continued impact on me.  BOREALIS has been an amazing opportunity for me and represents an amazing opportunity for Montana State University in terms of education and outreach.”

Courtney Peck (BOREALIS Intern 2010, MSU- BS in Physics 2012, currently a PhD and NSF Fellow at University of Colorado at Boulder) “As an early sophomore, I found the BOREALIS program while searching for a research group. I was most attracted to BOREALIS because of its emphasis on independent and creative student experimentation on a high-altitude balloon platform.  My participation in this program both during the academic year and through a summer internship enabled me to enhance my skills as a scientist and cemented my desire to pursue a PhD in physics.”

Tim Basta (BOREALIS Intern 2012, MSU –Mechanical Engineering student) “BOREALIS allowed me to work on a diverse engineering design team for the first time. I was able to help my team design and develop new systems, and also see some of my own ideas come to life. It was incredible to apply the knowledge learned in my major while learning from engineering students from other disciplines.”

Pushkar Pandit (MSU-Electrical Engineering student) “BOREALIS has brought me a much desired NASA experience and has given me opportunities to work in a real world, multidisciplinary environment where instruments that explore near space are designed and built.”

Sam Sorenson (BOREALIS Intern 2009 and 2010, MSU-BS in Computer Science 2011, currently working at Micron) “I honestly believe that my time with BOREALIS gave me the experience and skills necessary for me to start a career, and it definitely piqued my interest in pursuing a career in computer engineering and how it ties into the aerospace field.”

Spencer Abdo (MSU-Mechanical Engineering student) “BOREALIS opened up a whole new world for me that I didn't know existed. High altitude ballooning is both fun and educational.  And the opportunities that were offered because of my participation in the program have opened up countless doors to me. I will have a better career because of my involvement with BOREALIS.”

Colin Young (BOREALIS Intern 2009, BS in Electrical Engineering 2012, currently a graduate student at MSU in Electrical and Computer Engineering Department) “Borealis has been a support system for me and influenced my final decision to attend graduate school.  The multitude of projects that I was able to work on with Borealis added to my resume for graduate school.   It helped me to gain practical experience, as well as, networking skills in electrical engineering. I am now in graduate school with intentions in working in the power engineering field.”

Garrett Peebles (BOREALIS Intern 2012, MSU-Mechanical Engineering student, ) “The BOREALIS program is simply one of the best internships available in terms of summer projects.  In the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to work on a multidisciplinary team to design, fabricate, and assemble Steve. Steve is an autonomous alignment system that will be used to point a solar telescope at the sun while riding on NASA's 125,000 ft. balloon. This simply means I had the coolest project of the summer out of anyone I know. BOREALIS gave me the chance to apply my knowledge on engineering to create something that is awesome and works.  This internship was not about riding in the back seat; it was about designing my payload and making it happen. You will not find another place with cooler design projects for the summer than BOREALIS. Let's not forget that Berk Knighton and Randy Larimer are simply awesome to work with.”

Randy Plummer (BOREALIS Intern 2011, Fort Peck Community College) “I enjoyed the flights and setting up the experiments and think your technique of having each person be in charge of flights gave me experience and confidence that can only be gained by that experience.  I also liked learning how to solder and putting together the projects.  I enjoyed working with the other students and inter-netting with other programs and people.  The total experience was rewarding and something I will carry into my future.”

Implementation Plan

The center piece of BOREALIS will continue to be our 10 week Summer Internship program.  Academic year engagement will carry on through hands on projects and activities.  BOREALIS participants will continue to serve as ambassadors for all of MSGC outreach activities. 

                Summers 2013-2105 – Development of a zero pressure balloon platform

The summer internship program provides us with the necessary time for our students to focus on the development of our zero pressure balloon platform.  Developing a zero pressure balloon platform brings with it significant responsibility in ensuring its safe and regulatory compliant operation.  Since zero pressure balloons do not burst, the balloon must be cut away or vented to terminate the flight.   Continuous communication, payload descent and landing prediction are some of the other engineering challenges that must be addressed.  Through the years, BOREALIS has developed strong relationships with the advanced ballooning groups (Columbia Scientific Balloon via High Altitude Student Platform) and the FAA who oversees the operation of all balloon flights.  We will utilize these unique contacts to engage the students in responsible academic zero pressure ballooning.

                 Academic Year 2013-2015 – Engagement

The academic year BOREALIS program will continue with structured weekly group meetings for student communication  and lab access (24/7) for students to work independently on their projects at a time of their choosing.

Academic year engagement includes two phases:

1.) Time where advanced students work on individual projects.

2.) Time of engaging with group competitions intended to allow any student the opportunity to participate.

Encourage all BOREALIS members to participate in the MSGC Student Research Symposium (MSRS).

Assessment Plan

While the success of each individual student project can be measured against a set of project specifications, the overall success of the BOREALIS program is not as straight forward to measure.

MSGC has in place a longitudinal tracking system that keeps track of students for several years.  This system will provide data on career paths taken by each of the internship students.  The metric for this would be that 85% of BOREALIS Internship Students go on in a STEM Field.

Since BOREALIS is a training ground for individualized undergraduate research experiences, a reasonable measure of success would be to measure the number of students that participate in the BOREALIS internship program a second year or move on to other advanced opportunities like a NASA Internship, an REU, an Industry Internship or a Research Lab (advance opportunities).  The metric for this would be that 75% of the internship students either repeat or move on to advanced opportunities.

Since BOREALIS students are expected to present their work to others, the MSRS event can be used to measure the number of BOREALIS Interns that participate.  The metric for this would be 75% of BOREALIS Internship Students participate in MSRS.

The academic year program will maintain a minimum of 12 -15 active student participants during the school year.  These students will participate in an exit interview or survey at the end of each semester. The metric would be that 75% of students say that the research experience is valuable.

Most academic year recruitment is done by word of mouth, student to student, as well as a few key class presentations on the BOREALIS program.  The recruitment metric would be that 75% of the engaged students return to participate in the academic year program a second semester.

Successfully fill 100% of Summer Internships with qualified applicants

BOREALIS is one of the tools that MSGC uses for outreach to a variety of groups throughout the state. Maintain outreach events and collaborative research at 5-7 events per year as the metric.

If assessed objectives are not met in the timeframe outlined what is the plan to sunset this proposal?

BOREALIS by all measures has been a successful program that will only be sunset by lack of funding, meaning that the proposed three MSU specific internships would go away.

Department Head: Richard Smith (
Dean/Director: Paula Lutz (
Executive/VP: Tom Mccoy (