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In the near future, a box weighing just one pound and measuring 128 cubic inches will be launched 100 kilometers into the sky on-board Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle. Minutes later, it will return to the ground. What’s special about this box is that it and its contents are being designed, programmed, and built by a group of third-year students in the Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering program, right here at DigiPen.

The students — Lindsey Anderson, Collin MacDicken, Jonathan Kornich, and Nadine Martinez — are understandably excited and surprised to get the opportunity to work on something that will be heading to space.

“I actually came to DigiPen with the intent of being a game programmer,” said MacDicken, “but I saw the presentation they gave at Preview Day on the CE program and thought, I’m going to do that instead. I’m really glad I made that decision. Still, I had no idea we were going to be able to do a project like this.”

A circuit board surrounded by wires connecting it to an electrical device.
An early prototype of the detector being tested in the DigiPen ECE Lab.

The student project itself is a test to measure “cosmic particle flux as a function of altitude.” To do that, the team is building a low-cost sensor that detects particles (muons, in this case) anywhere between the ground and the Kármán Line, the point 100 kilometers above sea level recognized as a boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. Once built, the detector will be launched into space, collecting data as New Shepard takes a parabolic trajectory up to the Kármán line and back safely to Earth.

While many such particle detectors have been tested and used both in outer space and at lower altitudes, none with such low-cost and lightweight technology has yet been tested to measure cosmic rays continuously within the layers of atmosphere in between. The precursor to this project was a similarly designed detector created as a prior freshman-year project that was attached to a high-altitude balloon launched in Eastern Washington.

Serving as the team’s faculty advisors and principal investigators for the project are Drs. Jeremy Thomas, chair for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Natalia Solorzano, chair of the Department of Physics. Thomas and Solorzano are experienced atmospheric and space physicists who also have a high-altitude balloon project sponsored by the National Science Foundation with software and hardware being developed by DigiPen students.

“It is especially rare for students to get an opportunity to develop a scientific payload that will take measurements in space,” says Thomas. “In terms of learning outcomes, this project synthesizes their coursework in firmware, electronics, and physics with a daunting final field test — a sounding rocket in space.”

The recent advances in low-cost access to space like Blue Origin’s New Shepard are facilitating these types of student projects. Thomas and Solorzano plan for more DigiPen sensors systems to be launched on rockets, including (potentially) instruments on small satellites — known as CubeSats — that will stay in orbit.

“We are always looking for interested students from any of DigiPen’s Bachelor of Science programs to join our projects, not just computer engineering students,” Solorzano adds.

The team looks forward to technical help and specifications from the Blue Origin engineering team as the project comes together. In the meantime, they’ve been hard at work solving some of the project’s most pressing technical concerns: programming the on-board storage unit for the collected data, developing a filter that recognizes muons over other particles, and of course, creating hardware sturdy enough to survive the violent forces it will experience during its trip to space.

Diagram of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket flight path.
A diagram of New Shepard’s flight plan. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

The New Shepard vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle is capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of payloads per flight and will ultimately carry up to six astronauts to altitudes beyond 100 kilometers. Both students and faculty are excited about its upcoming launch in Texas. We hope to hear more about their experiences once the project is completed.