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Up in the Air

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A zero-pressure balloon rises from Warren Mall. Students were hoping the balloon would make it as far as New York. It got sucked into the windstorm currently above California instead.  

Undergraduates Launch Balloons, Learn About Aerospace Engineering
San Diego, Cailf., Dec. 2, 2011 -- Students in an introductory aerospace engineering class at the Jacobs School got a unique opportunity this week: they launched three balloons that are now cruising above California and may land in Arizona. The students also designed payload and instrumentation for the balloons. In the process, they learned some lessons about engineering.

“Designing something is actually very different than putting something together,” said Ashwin Ramanan, a transfer student now in his junior year.

Ramanan is used to stressful situations. Before coming to UC San Diego, he was part of a Coast Guard air crew based out of Corpus Christi, Texas. He took part in rescue missions during Hurricane Ike and during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. After he graduates, he plans to either go back to the military and become a pilot, or find an engineering job with a company.

Students originally were hoping their balloons would make it to the East Coast. But the winds currently blowing about Southern California are unlike anything seen in the past 10 years, said Professor John Kosmatka, who co-teaches the class with lecturer Mark Anderson. Typical easterly winds have been replaced by winds blowing in a swirling pattern, so the balloons spent most of Thursday above California, traveling at around 10 mph. Unfortunately, the launches couldn’t be postponed, since this is the last week of classes for fall quarter, Kosmatka said.

Ramanan and his classmates designed a clever system to keep their balloon aloft. They added a water balloon to their payload, which they filled with a mixture of roughly half alcohol and half water. They connected it to a sensor and a motor system equipped with an X-Acto knife. The sensor monitors altitude. When the balloon dips below 7000 meters (roughly 4.3 miles) of altitude, the sensor sends a signal to the motor, which causes the knife to cut the water balloon open, releasing about one pound of weight. That should allow the balloon to soar back up to its target flight altitude of 36,000 feet (roughly 6.8 miles).

The first balloon was launched in a wind storm Wednesday night. It landed that night somewhere near the Grand Canyon, then took off again Thursday morning and was making its way through the Southwest.

The three balloons can be tracked online at by searching for their call signs: KJ6ELR-1, KJ6ELR-2 and KJ6ELR-3.

The UC San Diego Balloon Team is set to try a trans-continental flight later in the academic year.

Created with flickr slideshow.
Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering