An instrument package released from a high-altitude balloon parachuted to a precise location July 26 in a demonstration that is expected to open the door to more elaborate experiments for a team of Rocket University engineers and designers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
For this flight, a parachute and five-pound instrument box were carried beneath a weather balloon to 65,000 feet -- about twice the altitude of a cruising airliner -- and released. The parachute opened and floated down to the ocean where a recovery crew gathered it up. The parachute had no steering ability, but the team was able to predict where the payload would land using a computer model.
"We now feel ready for more challenging payloads and relieved because we didn't want to move forward until we got this capability taken care of," said Nicole Dawkins, a Kennedy engineer who leads the Rocket University's aerial balloon segment.
Rocket University is a NASA effort to enhance technical prowess at the agency by pushing engineers and managers into areas outside their specialties. The teams are divided into several areas and involve people at all the NASA field centers.
It took a couple of tries for the team to reach success, but the achievement marked a moment of celebration for the program.
"The team has met their objective of predicting where the payload will land once it's released from the balloon," Dawkins said.
The earlier flights did not succeed in large part because the payload package wouldn't separate from the balloon on command.
"It's always a simple thing that you never think is going to get you," Dawkins said. "When they have a failure, we don't just go back the next day. We talk about lessons learned and redesign and peer review. We really work it over as well as we can."
Dawkins said they would not be able to fly heavier, more complex payloads until they proved they could make precise predictions of landing zones and recover the packages.
"It became a primary objective for the team in that we're not going to be able to do more challenging payloads until we've mastered that capability," Dawkins said. "So we really decided that this was a skill that we would really put into all of our balloon flights. The team really wanted to work on this one feature."
This flight came about a year after the group flew a balloon to the edge of space to drop an instrument-laden aerodynamic capsule to determine whether its shape was stable in free fall. During last year's mission, teams tracked the 110,000-foot fall but attempted only a general prediction of where it might land. They recovered the capsule and parachute and came back with a good record of the flight, including footage from an onboard camera.
The team will participate in a project to gather microbes from the stratosphere next summer using a high-altitude balloon and return the payload to the ground safely.
"As long as we keep challenging participants and bring in new participants, I think this is a really good step for Rocket University's near-space environments curriculum," Dawkins said.
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