Blog & Events

WIALD's High Altitude Balloon

April 1, 2013

By Ciara Waldron, Senior Aerospace Engineering student

Picture of Ciara Waldron smilingWomen in Aerospace for Leadership and Development (WIALD, pronounced "wild") was started in 2009 in the Aerospace Engineering Department. Our goal is to recruit and retain women in Aerospace Engineering by providing opportunities for leadership development and hands-on experience through aerospace-themed technical projects. This year we launch our first high altitude balloon to the edge of space! 

On the first Saturday of the semester, WIALD members attended a five-hour Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning (ARHAB) Training Session. The training session covered everything related to launching a high altitude balloon from flight preparation to payload recovery.

After goalsetting, programming, fabricating, and assembling payload components and structures, we will test the payload. During a high altitude balloon flight, temperatures range from surface temperature to -89˚F. Simulating extreme temperatures allows us to find faults and prove space worthiness. Testing components with a cooler of dry ice overnight will ensure that payload components function properly in extreme environments. Testing for a long duration will also test each payload component's power budget.

Once the payloads are tested, we will prepare for the flight! A lot goes into launching a high altitude balloon: coordinating flight equipment including payloads, parachute, and balloon; communicating with the FAA before, during, and after the flight. When choosing where to launch, it's important to stay away from airports and class B and C airspace. Online tools allow us to simulate the balloon’s flight based on wind data. Entering our flight data, including latitude and longitude of launch site, date and time of launch, expected ascent rate, burst and descent rate, allows us to see the balloon’s expected route and landing zone.

Part of the payload hardware will be GPS tracked via Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), which allows anyone to track our balloon’s position and altitude in real time. Once the balloon reaches the target altitude of about 100,000 feet, it will burst. The parachute will not engage for minutes because of the thin atmosphere at that altitude. The period of time after the burst and before parachute deployment is called Post Burst Chaos (PBC).  These several minutes can wreak havoc on the payloads and parachute as PBC can cause tangling and render the parachute useless.

After some free fall, the atmosphere thickens and the parachute deploys and then (theoretically) carries the payloads to the ground. A spreader separaets the parachute strings to avoid tangling during PBC. Depending on wind strength, payloads could land up to 200 miles away from the launch site. Tracking the balloon with APRS is essential for the balloon chase and retrieval team. Good tracking data will lead our team to the payloads, but a lack of tracking data can make it difficult to recover the payloads. Immediately after recovery, we will analyze preliminary results, including pictures and video of the earth's curvature from the edge of space. Longer-term result analysis will include temperature, pressure, light intensity and accelerometer data from each of the payloads during the flight.

The WIALD women are very excited about this project, and we have three different cameras that will take pictures and video during the balloon's flight. We're very anxious to go on "the chase" recover the payloads and see the awesome pictures and video from the edge of space!

Ciara Waldron (Senior Aerospace Engineering Student) is President of WIALD.

Picture of group of WIALD students smiling