The sky was literally the limit for a NASA-sanctioned project completed by six Calgary high school students earlier this month.

It was 14 months ago that Addison Lindemann, Adam Ursenbach, Benjamin Wolfman, Ali Abdulla, Brian Kehrig and Eric Leclair took a giant leap and submitted their proposal for NASA’s High Altitude Student Platform (HASP) program.

Had the group waited a couple of years to take their shot at participating in the program — which invites students to design, build, test and fly a scientific experiment on a high-altitude balloon from NASA’s New Mexico facility — their application wouldn’t have been quite so unique. That’s because every other approved experiment in the program’s history has been designed by university students, mainly from the United States.

But for the six high schoolers, all attending Calgary’s private Renart School in grades 10 to 12 at the time, getting their project approved would be a first.

“We never thought we’d be accepted,” said Wolfman, now in Grade 12.

But NASA was impressed. The group’s project was designed to measure solar radiation in the upper atmosphere, comparing which types of solar cells produce the most electricity in high altitude, under various treatments.

After about a year of hard work, they travelled to New Mexico in September to launch their project. Along with experiments designed by university students, their 600-gram payload called the HAL9000 — a box filled with electronic detectors made from aluminum and Styrofoam — was launched 35 kilometres into the atmosphere aboard NASA’s high-altitude balloon.

A photo taken by the camera on board the students’ payload during flight of the High Altitude Student Platform. (Supplied)

The students were surprised to learn that more electricity was generated by photovoltaic solar cells, a type of solar panel costing about 10 cents, which accepts normal light, rather than their thermal photovoltaic solar cell counterparts, a much more expensive panel that is able to accept both visible and infrared light.

“Maybe this isn’t the amazing technology we thought it was,” noted Abdulla, who graduated in June and now attends the University of Waterloo, referencing the $300 thermal photovoltaic solar cell. “Maybe it does have deficiencies that need to be explored further.”

Beyond the science, the students say taking part in the project was a learning experience like no other.

“We became the first high school students to ever be accepted into the project,” said Wolfman. “It’s really cool for a bunch of high school students to get the opportunity to go to the NASA facilities and do a project like this, work with each other and work with the NASA people. … Really, the main takeaway from this is the entire experience, how we each got to do what we like to do and learn in those particular areas of interest. If one member’s missing, it’s really tough for everyone. So it’s really learning teamwork.”

Abdulla said his main takeaway from the experience was learning how to adjust when certain theories or designs didn’t pan out in the planning stage.

“Our original design looks nothing like this,” he said. “Engineering is iterative and being able to have these small progressive failures that get you to a good technological product like this is important. It’s good to fail in a constructive way.”

The students may have been the first high schoolers to participate in the program, but Ursenbach, now in Grade 11, said he hopes they won’t be the last.

“We’re hoping that younger grades might want to do this in the future,” he said. “Because we showed them that it’s possible.”