Balloon Team looks to the sky with upcoming balloon launch

Cole Evans works with Satellite Team balloon payload and flight systems.
Photo Courtesy Of: Andrew Struthers

In the past, Satellite Club (Sat Club) has struggled to accomplish their goals pertaining to satellites on their original timelines. However, this is starting to change as the club is starting to find success on a scale larger than just the classroom.

Originally, the goal was to build a cubesat and launch it by the end of 2016.  A cubesat is a 10cm by 10cm by 10cm cube that functions just like a regular satellite, but on a smaller scale. A simple satellite consists of some proof of concept (eg. a 3-D printed satellite), along with a communication system to talk to the earth. Building a working cubesat on the first try, with a group of people who have no experience building satellites proved more difficult than they previously thought. As a result, a subgroup attempted a simpler goal by deciding to make a high altitude balloon, with senior Cole Evans as team lead and Miles Durnwirth as co-lead.  

“When you think of a cubesat, it is a very complex thing,” said Evans. “There’s a lot of subsystems on there, and there’s a difference between doing something for real and on a test bed. The balloon is an effort for Sat Club to build something that actually flies [that is] built to the quality of a space-ready cubesat, including software.”

The balloon is a solid first step towards launching a cubesat, as the subsystems and software are almost identical. The balloon has to have computer chips, or microcontrollers, that handle data and run the entire system, and a satellite (SAT) phone communication system in order for the team to communicate with the payload after launch.

“We have a few microcontrollers, a SAT phone com[munication] system, GPS systems, and other subsystems,” said Evans. “It will be very similar to how they would be on an actual cubesat.”

As with every project, there are a multitude of challenges that the team has to overcome. Launching a balloon seems like it wouldn’t be too complicated, but even after getting it to work, the FAA can still shut the project down.

“[The launch date] depends on our FAA certification,” said Durnwirth. “We do not have a flight termination system on the balloon, so we need to get an exemption from the FAA rules.”

The goal of this launch is to build something that can operate as a learning platform for the future members of the team.

“Hopefully this balloon can be reusable,” said Durnwirth, “and hopefully we can fly it multiple times to gain knowledge for people who have no knowledge or experience with cubesats.”

One of the main struggles for getting a good test balloon is getting the communication system to work well. The communication system is used to track, monitor, and talk to the balloon throughout its flight.

“Some balloons uses HAM radio to communicate with the ground,” said Evans, “but that requires line of sight. So we use a SAT phone running off of an Iridium network, which works anywhere around the earth if it has a clear view of the sky. The com[munication] system can send 300 bytes per packet of information.”

Not only will this balloon be a test of concept for the cubesat launch, but the project has the potential to provide some really interesting pictures and videos of the payload as it goes up, reaches its maximum altitude, then goes back down to earth.

“We are trying to get a lot of cool video from the flight,” said Evans, “so we have 4k cameras with fisheye lenses, and we should get some really cool videos of the flight.”

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