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Student group blasts off

After a four-hour drive to Cobleskill, N.Y., five members of Northeastern’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics climbed out of their van and into the frigid early-winter air. Then they proceeded to fill a giant, seven-foot weather balloon with helium.

In a box cooler affixed to the balloon with twist-ties and carabineers, the team members placed an old iPhone, a Go-Pro camera, and some cave calcite and kunzite minerals, which are known to fluoresce under short-wave ultraviolet light—but are only accessible above the ozone layer. Then they let go of the balloon and watched it drift off into the upper atmosphere, somewhere on the order of 90,000 feet above the earth and close to the ozone layer.

An hour and a half later, the balloon and its inanimate passengers landed safely in Bedford, N.H., where another seven members of the group were able to find it by tracking the iPhone’s GPS signal.

While the experiment with the minerals didn’t go as planned, the group’s founding president Andrew Buggee, S’16, says the event was nothing short of a success. It was the group’s first big project and it was, by all accounts, thrilling.

Buggee, who’s majoring in physics and minoring in mechanical engineering, has always been interested in aerospace science. But since no campus club existed, he took the initiative to start one. He and his roommate, Tom Kerikas, E’16, began planning the AIAA group in the spring of 2013, Buggee says, “but it really took off after the COE Freshman Night this fall.”

Though they had no fancy banners or gadgets to impress the first-year students looking for exciting extracurricular activities—in fact they had nothing with them but a dusty copy of an intro to rocket science textbook—Buggee and Kerikas met with a huge amount of interest from the students. Several dozen showed up to the group’s first meeting a couple weeks later.

One of those students, Mary Morrison, is now the group’s treasurer and perhaps its biggest advocate. “A lot of people are pretty successful at finding their own aerospace co-ops,” she says. “But it would be nice to see more of a community academically, with support from teachers, faculty, and clubs at Northeastern.” And that’s precisely what the AIAA group has created.

In early April, the team held its biggest event yet. This time, instead of launching a balloon into the upper atmosphere, the group members were tasked with building a rocket to compete in the annual AIAA Battle of the Rockets in Culpeper, Va. Despite a few setbacks, the team came in first place in the event, launching its rocket—lovingly named Cal Ripken in honor of the calibration measurement that determines a rocket’s stability—closer to the desired height of 1,500 feet than any other team.

Next up on the group’s agenda? Repeat the balloon mission, get certified to launch rockets at higher power, and secure funding for a host of research projects, including sending a cube satellite into space with the help of astronauts at the International Space Station.

Those are the big ideas. They’ve also got some smaller ones percolating just for fun, such as flying a goldfish across campus. No word yet on the feasibility of that adventure.