Alpha Micro supports Cranfield University’s search for life on the edge of space

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“This project is at the cutting edge of science and Alpha Micro is delighted to be able to support this unique experiment.”

Can life exist on the edge of space? This is just one of the questions that a group of students from Cranfield University hope to answer with assistance from sponsors Alpha Micro Components. Team CASS-E (Cranfield University Astrobiological Stratospheric Sampling Experiment) have designed a biological data collecting instrument which will be sent into the stratosphere as part of the BEXUS (Balloon-borne Experiments for University Students) programme in 2010.), the independent franchised distributor of electronic components.

Under the supervision of Professor David Cullen, Team CASS-E consists of three PhD students from Cranfield Health, 1 PhD student from the School of Engineering and three Masters students from the School of Engineering's Space Research Centre. The team's focus will be on how planetary protection and contamination control procedures, such as those for space missions including the proposed exploratory trips to Mars, can be used to ensure that any microbial life that is detected is truly stratospheric.

Therefore, it is vital to the success of the experiment that the instrument remains sterile until it has reached the stratosphere. To help ensure this, Alpha Micro has supplied a number of devices from its franchised lines which will provide an accurate altitude reading. These components also have the robustness required to work in the extreme environment of space, where the temperatures reach minus 90oc with an atmospheric pressure that is 100 times less than on the ground. Included among these are the u-blox AMY-5 GPS module, the Lantronix UDS1100 network device server and the Taoglas AA105 antenna.

Each of these modules will be embedded and integrated within the instrument and will communicate the altitude back to the team's ground station. The u-blox AMY-5 GPS module and Taoglas AA105 antenna were specified because they have the strength and sensitivity to provide accurate altitude readings of up to 50 kilometres while withstanding the harsh temperatures of near space. To ensure that this information is securely communicated to the ground station, the Lantronix UDS1100 Ethernet to serial converter will act as a conduit between the balloon and the ground station. The balloon only transmits an Ethernet signal which further necessitated the UDS1100 converter.

The experiment itself will last two to five hours so once the u-blox module picks up the GPS signal via the Taoglas antenna and confirms the necessary altitude with the electronics board, the Lantronix device server will translate this information to the ground station. Once it's been confirmed that the balloon has reached the stratosphere, the instrument's bio-barriers, which protect the sterile area where the sample collecting filters are located, will be breached and the experiment will begin by allowing two pumps to pump air through the collection filters to potentially collect evidence of life.

CASS-E team leader Clara Juanes-Vallejo commented: "Our aim is to design, assemble and fly an instrument that is capable of collecting microorganisms in the Earth's stratosphere where the balloon will float. To meet our goal of determining whether or not life can exist in near space, our instrument must be sterile when it enters the stratosphere. The GPS devices provided by Alpha Micro are vital for accurate altitude measurement readings so that we know that the balloon has travelled 20 kilometres above the Earth's surface. For our experiment to be a success, any data we collect must have come from the stratosphere."

The BEXUS Stratospheric Balloon, which will carry the CASS-E instrument, is part of the Rexus/Bexus programme, a joint initiative between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB). The BEXUS Balloon is nearly 100 metres long and will carry up to 20 experiments. Through collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Swedish share of the payload has been made available to student teams from across Europe, including Team CASS-E from Cranfield University. The balloon is scheduled to be launched in early October 2010 from the Esrange Space Center in northern Sweden.

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The instrument will collect air from the stratosphere 21 miles above the Earth to determine whether microorganisms are able to survive at this altitude. These atmospheric conditions are similar to that found on the surface of Mars and the results of this experiment will help determining whether or not the planet can support life. For the project to succeed, it is vital that the box is completely sterile when it leaves the atmosphere so that any life that is detected is truly stratospheric and not Earth-based.

Alpha Micro worked with the CASS-E team to ensure that it had the software solutions required for the development of the project's ground station and embedded control board. Miss Juanes-Vallejo added: "Having initially approached Alpha Micro about the u-blox AMY-5, we soon realised that they also had a number of other solutions that would help to ensure the success of our project. It was of great benefit to both the CASS-E team and the experiment that we were able to work with a distributor like Alpha Micro that not only had the leading products we required but also the design expertise to guide us through each of the component's capabilities.

Christos Papakyriacou, Managing Director of Alpha Micro Components, said: "Everyone at Alpha Micro has really enjoyed working with the CASS-E team, who have demonstrated a contagious enthusiasm throughout this experiment. Being able to step out of our normal working routine and support such a driven group of students has been a pleasure. It is an honour for Alpha Micro to have been given the opportunity to work with such dedicated students to help them meet their ambitious goals."

"This project is at the cutting edge of science and Alpha Micro is delighted to be able to support this unique experiment. The fact that a number of our components from market leaders u-blox, Lantronix and Taoglas will be used to determine whether life can exist in space is a wonderful bonus."

The REXUS/BEXUS programme is realised under a bilateral Agency Agreement between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB). The Swedish share of the payload has been made available to students from other European countries through a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

EuroLaunch, a collaboration between the Esrange Space Center of the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) and the Mobile Rocket Base (MORABA) of DLR, is responsible for the campaign management and operations of the launch vehicles. Experts from ESA, SSC and DLR provide technical support to the student teams throughout the project. REXUS and BEXUS are launched from Esrange Space Center in northern Sweden. For more information visit http://www.rexusbexus.net

Alpha Micro is fully committed to supporting the engineers of tomorrow. Its design-based approach to distribution includes a team of in-house engineers. Their in-depth product knowledge adds real value to the solutions they provide customers by ensuring their designs meet the exact specifications of the varied and demanding projects.

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Last updated: 21 June 2011