One of the teams competing at the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Design Challenge
One of the teams competing at the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Design Challenge. Image credit: SEDS Canada.

CAN-SBX Student Team Overcomes Wildfire Threat to Perform Stratospheric Radiation Research

The 2023 season of the Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Design Challenge (CAN-SBX) concluded last week at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base in Timmins, Ontario as part of this year’s CSA/CNES stratospheric balloon campaign.

The UBC Okanagan student group that went to Timmins for the launch ran an experiment aimed at discovering the effects that radiation had on computer equipment which can have scientific effects both in space and on Earth. 

That the team made it at all is remarkable, however, considering their university was being evacuated due to the West Kelowna wildfires.


CAN-SBX is run by the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS Canada), a student-run non-profit. SEDS mission is to  “strengthen Canada’s future in space,” and is focused on helping post-secondary students perform scientific experiments related to space. They run several different student-focused events: CAN-SBX, which launches student experiments on stratospheric balloons; CAN-RGX which flies them on reduced-gravity flights, a Young Space Entrepreneurs Competition, and the student-focused Canadian Space Conference. 

Coming next year, they’ll also be running a “Canada Analog Research Experiment” (CAN-ARX) which will be taking experiments to remote locations analogous to the Moon or Mars. It will let student teams create experiments in isolated locations, better understanding how to deal with a lack of resources like power and water.

SpaceQ spoke about CAN-SBX with Connor McNeill, recently-elected Projects Chair at SEDS. McNeill is responsible for managing CAN-SBX and CAN-RGX.

McNeill said that there were two student groups that were in the running to run experiments in Timmins. One group from Carleton University was looking to study the impact of the stratosphere on microorganisms, which would provide insights into astrobiology and microorganism’s impact on space travel. McNeill said they had to drop out, however, due to personnel and funding issues. He said this was a common challenge for CAN-SBX participants. 

The other group, called the “Stratoneers,” was from the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna, led by UBC Mechanical Engineering student Abrar Mahir. Their experiment was, according to SEDS, “testing hardware protective techniques to mitigate the occurrence of bit flips (memory and storage errors) due to cosmic radiation in computer’s binary code.” McNeill said that they had to do a fair bit of hardware work to make it happen: finding specific hardware components, modifying them so that the built-in error correction wouldn’t override the experimental results, and attaching them to an experimental laptop.

University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna flight hardware. Image credit: SEDS Canada.
University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna flight hardware. Image credit: SEDS Canada.

They also integrated a Geiger counter into the payload, so that they could track both radiation spikes and related errors concurrently over the course of the three-hour flight. 

(Unlike many of the other payloads in Timmins, they were able to have a balloon of their own, avoiding potential interference from other devices.)

The Stratoneers and the Wildfires

McNeill said that it wasn’t surprising that they only had the one team this year, owing to the lingering effects of the pandemic and the simple fact that “flying to get the campaign can cost a substantial amount.” 

What was remarkable was that it was the University of British Columbia Okanagan team that made it. The distance and expense of traveling from Kelowna to Timmins is daunting enough, but the Stratoneers were based out of Kelowna, near where wildfires are still raging as of time of writing. Between the threat of fire, the omnipresence of smoke, and the ongoing evacuations, McNeill said that his original assumption was “okay, we’re going to need to reschedule this.” 

Nevertheless, the Stratoneers persisted.

In fact, McNeill explained, since “Kelowna was on fire as they were trying to fly out,” Mahir and his team couldn’t fly, so they “managed to switch their flights from Kelowna to Vancouver.” The students at UBC Okanagan had been requested to evacuate prior to the competition, and McNeill asked the team if they had to go back to get the payload. He said that the Stratoneers responded by saying that the payload was the very first thing they grabbed as they were evacuating the campus, putting it in the trunk of their car before they left. 

The team made the four-hour drive from Kelowna to Vancouver with their experiment, then got on a flight to Timmins via Regina and Toronto. 

Despite these tremendous odds, they arrived in Timmins on time on Tuesday afternoon. The Stratoneers were able to integrate their payload with the balloon, launch without issue, recover the payload after its descent by parachute, and get the data they were looking for. McNeill said that was very likely to be scientifically relevant, perhaps even groundbreaking research. This isn’t rare for CAN-SBX—despite being primarily-undergraduate student teams, McNeill said that a “double digit range of [scientific] papers that have resulted from these projects.” 

Depending on what they find, the Stratoneers’ persistence in the face of adversity may end up having a long-term effect on cislunar and deep space spacecraft design.

McNeill was also on hand for the launches, having made his own lengthy trip from near Edmonton. The balloon that the Stratoneers launched on Wednesday was impressive enough, but McNeill said that “my jaw dropped to the floor” when he saw the launch of a zero-pressure balloon on Tuesday night. The “massive size of the balloon” awed him, he said, “I can’t even compare it to anything else…I couldn’t believe they would use that much helium to fill up a balloon like that.” 

McNeill said that, all in all, CAN-SBX was a success, and that SEDS is looking forward to next year’s events. That’s what they’re focused on now, as applications will be opening for CAN-SBX, CAN-RGX and (now) CAN-ARX next week on September 4th. Those interested can find out more on their projects site

For more information on the other stratospheric balloon launches from Timmins, and on the upgrades to their facilities, check out SpaceQ coverage from earlier this month.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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