To edge of space, back: West Point balloon satellite a success

By Mike Strasser, West Point Public AffairsMay 19, 2011

Edge of space
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Scouting a launch site
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Ready to Launch
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Up and away
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Satellite recovery mission
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West Point team enjoys a successful mission
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WEST POINT, N.Y., May 19, 2011 -- The pursuit of success and the thrill of a chase was enough to get a group of exam-weary cadets to conduct a second launch of the West Point Balloon Satellite May 13.

With most of the Corps of Cadets completing finals or enjoying leave prior to Graduation Week, six cadets and two officers invested their own time to explore the edge of space on the final day of the spring semester.

Comprised of cadets from the Astronomy Club and Amateur Radio club, a convoy traveled to Sam's Point Preserve, N.Y., about an hour outside West Point, and established a launch site at an elevation of 2,200 feet overlooking Minnewaska State Park. The location was predetermined by a mathematical model of current wind patterns to estimate a landing in the vicinity of West Point and away from water or mountainous terrain.

On first look at the rocky platform and magnificent vista, there was no argument to the "awesome" factor of choosing Sam's Point for a launch site.

The team included Class of 2013 Cadets Brett Darden, Justin Vonsik, Robert Glover, Phillip Weigand, Class of 2011 Cadet Anthony Gonzalez and Class of 2014 Cadet Mike Gotschall; with Maj. Stephen Hamilton and Maj. Diana Loucks as officers-in-charge.

The cadets kept the balloon covered as they filled it with helium to prevent heavy wind gusts from taking it too early. The payload, which included two cameras (one for video and another for still photography) was examined and tested to ensure it would remain operational after liftoff.

The telemetry package was also tested so that the balloon's voyage could be tracked in real time through the Automatic Packet Reporting System. The package transmitted signals to an ad hoc network of ham radio operators that run a nationwide communications utility as a community service.

"It's literally a hodgepodge of ham radio operators and clubs who set up their computers on the network and that's what we rely on to receive the transmission," said Hamilton, an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science assistant professor.

Once the payload was secured to a parachute attached to the balloon, the team, along with a family of hikers observing the action, launched the balloon and raced to the vehicles to begin the pursuit. Movement was easily traced by radio and smart phones through the APRS tracking device, providing accurate speed, altitude and location.

Excitement built as the team followed a course that sometimes seemed destined to touch down in a lake or airport, just to keep things interesting.

A previous launch in late March was not without its share of setbacks, which started in the early morning with the team fighting brutally cold temperatures. The radio antenna wasn't strong enough to keep a constant eye on the satellite, and one mathematical error found them searching a wider radius than anticipated during the recovery phase.

The satellite search took them to a private estate, which required a security escort to collect their payload.

Fortunately, this second high-altitude launch found the team well-rehearsed and ready for any eventuality. Considering the incalculable number of things that could have gone wrong, they tracked the satellite throughout its journey and quickly recovered the undamaged payload at a business complex in Newburgh, N.Y., about 15 miles from West Point.

The instruments were still cold from their journey to space, but within minutes, the team was marveling at the hundreds of stratospheric images and video taken more than 85,000 feet high.

"This launch went smoother, and we had a more manageable balloon and an improved payload," Vonsik, a physics major, said.

"The main factor that contributed to that was the fact that everyone knew what they were supposed to do and what to expect," Darden added. "Though we lost some time because of the technical difficulties we had, everything else was done quickly and efficiently."

Darden, an Arts, Philosophy and Literature major, had no idea what a balloon satellite was before joining the Astronomy Club. In fact, he joined for the pizza served every Monday.

"But seeing that balloon go up that first time was amazing," Darden said. "We spent hours working on that satellite."

Loucks, an instructor in the Physics and Nuclear Engineering Department, described it as a win-win for cadets and research development at West Point.

"The greatest benefit in my eyes is space education," Loucks said. "The balloon satellite program allows cadets from all majors to participate and learn about the many nuances of space technology and applications within the Army. The engineering process also occurs in the background and the cadets get instant feedback on their accomplishments."

"Secondary to this, we now have an inexpensive launch platform that ensures five to 10 minutes of space flight time for any payload that goes up. The Space and Missile Defense Command Research and Analysis Center was started to further the outreach of space education and research at the academy and this is complementary to its goals," he explained.

Loucks attributed much of the success to the cadets' ability to capitalize on lessons learned from the previous launch. This included allotting time for included rehearsals and pre-combat inspections, exploring new radio capabilities, creating a separate recovery and launch team, examining thermal control on the payloads and ensuring all components were engaged before launch.

Loucks also credits the Edge of Space Science organization for crucial support.

"I was first introduced to 'balloon-satting' during my time in Colorado. My graduate research was sponsored by Colorado Space Grant Consortium headed up by Christopher Koehler at the University of Colorado at Boulder," she said. "They conduct balloon-sat operations year-round through the help of EOSS, a non-profit organization. I must say that without the assistance of one of their technicians, Mike Manes, we never would have gotten this off the ground."

The balloon satellite made its debut during the 2010 Projects Day when the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science demonstrated its capabilities in the West Point Club ballroom.

"We had a tethered balloon with a live camera facing down," Hamilton said. "It was an interesting experiment that got us prepped and excited on how to manage a balloon, which is kind of an art form on its own."

Since then, two successful launches and recoveries have invigorated the team to further its exploration of space. However, they'll be minus a core group of senior cadets and their two officers, who'll be changing duty stations this summer.

The absence of the seniors during this launch was regrettable, Hamilton noted, but realistically, it's the remaining team that will be responsible for future launches after graduation Saturday. As a parting homage, the payload included a pair of lieutenant bars wedged inside the foam interior of the satellite.

"Almost everything we need to know to launch and recover the balloon has been learned by cadets," Darden said. "The only problem I foresee is that no one will know the APRS system quite like Major Hamilton. I do know that Cadet Weigand is very passionate about this project and with him around, these balloon launches will continue."

The team also has the support of the U.S. Air Force Academy Aeronautics Department and the Space Club, which has been tracking the progress on the West Point Balloon Satellite Facebook page.

Collaboration between the two academies was made earlier this year after the establishment of a ground station here to communicate with the Air Force Falcon III Satellite in space, involving cadets from the West Point Small Satellite Research Group and the Amateur Radio Club.

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