In the beginning of the 20th century, scientists commonly believed that radioactivity, which is the nuclear decay of an atom, was produced only from radioactive materials on earth, and that radiation was higher near ground levels.
In 1911, Victor Hess, an Austrian-American physicist, took to the skies with a free-flight air balloon and three enhanced-accuracy devices to measure radiation and successfully contradicted the commonly-held belief.
Hess’s meticulous experiments, conducted between 1911 and 1913, showed that the level of radiation decreased up to an altitude of about 1 km, but above that, the level increased considerably, with the radiation detected at 5 km being about twice that at sea level. He concluded that there was radiation penetrating the atmosphere from outer space, and his discovery was confirmed by Robert Andrews Millikan in 1925, who gave the radiation the name “cosmic rays.”
Ever since then, cosmic radiation has been a vast field of study, from its impact on spacecrafts to its effects on the human body.
The latter is what the undergraduate students of BITS Pilani, Goa campus, hope to study with their project, Apeiro. Under the project, the students have developed a microsatellite which aims to detect and measure cosmic radiation in the stratosphere.
In the early hours of February 2, 2018, Sanket Deshpande, Lucky Kapoor, Shivangi Kamat, Vibhav Joshi and Pankaj Tiple of project Apeiro launched India’s first student-led microsatellite which will help in understanding cancer-causing cosmic radiation that constantly bombards the earth.
The microsatellite was launched from the balloon facility of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TFIR) in Hyderabad.
The experiment was based on the high altitude ballooning technique. The technique makes use of a zero-pressure plastic balloon which lifts the experimental payload to the desired altitudes of near-space environment. The payload here consisted of cosmic radiation detector supported by an onboard high and low voltage power supply systems and a combination of scintillator and photomultiplier tubes with a data acquisition systems.
The TIFR centre in Hyderabad is one of the few institutes in the world capable of launching such a flight. The balloon and all other flight equipment required for the flight of the project payload were developed entirely at this facility.
Dr B Satyanarayana of TIFR, Mumbai, was the project mentor and Prof Devendra Ojha, Chairperson of TIFR Balloon Facility, Hyderabad, Suneel Kumar, scientist-in-charge, TIFR Balloon Facility, and Srihari Menon of University of Pennsylvania, USA, were also part of the project.
Apeiro was successfully launched at 2:12 a.m. on February 2 and achieved its first float altitude at 24.8 km. The second float altitude was achieved at 26.7 km.
“This flight sets history by successfully completing the country’s first near-space experiment completely developed by students,” says an official statement.
Victor Hess discovered cosmic rays, and earned the Nobel prize for his work, while also paving the way for many discoveries in physics and other fields. Perhaps, it is true that the common need to understand the universe is what unifies people beyond boundaries.
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