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Near-Space Balloon Team Lands on the Front Page

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UC San Diego Near Space Balloon Team members David Hernandez, right, and Tim Wheeler, with a device Hernandez designed to collect particles with tape.

San Diego, CA, July 26, 2011 --The Near-Space Balloon Team at UC San Diego, under the direction of mechanical and aerospace engineering Prof. John Kosmatka, is planning to send a balloon across the United States—and their efforts have landed them on the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune Monday, July 25.

It would be the first time a U.S. university would fly a helium-filled, zero-pressure balloon across the nation. The launch is part of a program meant to prepare engineering students for the workplace and to teach them the basic principles of their discipline hands-on. NASA is providing financial support for the project through the California Space Grant Consortium. 

“I want students to do hands-on projects so that they can see that engineering is more than equations,” Kosmatka told the Union-Tribune. “And I want them to work as a team. That’s important for students who’ll go into industry.” 

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UC San Diego Near Space Balloon Team members with a balloon similar to the one they plan to launch in August.

Gurleen Bal, one of the students on the team, says it’s working. The project has taught her what it’s like to work outside the classroom, she said. Bal, who programs balloons’ flight cameras, also said she now feels prepared for potential jobs in industry.

Team members plan to launch their balloon sometime in early August from Warren Mall on campus. They’re hoping the jet stream will carry it to Georgia or South Carolina. It will have to withstand temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and difficult weather conditions, with winds blowing as fast as 100 mph.

The balloon itself is about 26 feet long and can be filled with about 291 cubic feet of helium. It also carries a 5-pound payload box, which includes a couple of tracking systems, environmental and atmospheric sensors and a camera. During the August flight, it will also carry a particle collector creatively designed by undergraduate aerospace engineering student David Hernandez by using VCR parts and tape. Hernandez tested the device by strapping it on the top of his car and driving it on I-5. The team will use a UCSD scanning electron microscope to analyze the particles collected during the August flight and determine their make-up. Other parts of the system were placed in dry ice to see if they could withstand sub-zero temperatures.

But perhaps one of the balloon’s most original features is its ballast control system, which uses sugar. That’s right. Sugar. Sensors designed and built by students Gamer Keshshe and Tim Wheeler will determine when the balloon starts losing attitude and is at risk of dropping out of the jet stream. The sensors will then melt one of two bags attached to the bottom of the balloon, which hold one pound of sugar each. Dropping the ballast should allow the balloon to regain altitude.

“We decided that sugar would be a friendlier thing to use as ballast than sand, and a lot better than flour, which might clump together in the cold air,” Wheeler, the lead undergraduate student on the project,  told the Union-Tribune. “We’ll see.”

While team member Stephanie Porter is currently working on ways to predict the balloon's trajectory, winds need to be favorable to carry it across the United States. Last week, Wheeler, who is studying aerospace engineering, remained cautious, but optimistic, about the upcoming August launch.

 “I’ll consider it a success if we can get the ballast to work -- if the balloon really rises back up after it dips down. And I’d like to see us collect air particles that we can analyze. We’d like to see the balloon go all the way across the country, but we know that a lot of things can happen,” he said in the Union-Tribune article. 

Other students on the team are: Tom Hong, graduate student team leader; and Umar Usman. Former members include undergraduate Casey Barrett, an environmental sensor expert, and graduate student team leader Kim Wright.

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A picture of the Salton Sea taken during a recent balloon launch.

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Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899
ipatrin@ucsd.edu

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