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RIT Students Successfully Launch High Altitude Balloon

05/12/2011

The Rochester Institute of Technology Amateur Radio Club, K2GXT, had a successful launch of RITCHIE-1 -- a custom high altitude balloon designed by members of K2GXT -- at the Imagine RIT Festival on May 7. According to RITARC Vice President Bryce Salmi, KB1LQC, the goal of the launch was not to reach high altitudes to take images, but to engineer a reliable, modular and reusable payload with good engineering practice. “Saturday’s launch went perfect,” Salmi told the ARRL. “The launch was streamed live to the Internet and a local television station even produced a segment for their newscast on it.” The club won the Academic Award for the balloon at the festival.

Salmi said that the balloon had a custom-made structural frame and foam design that protected it from the -50 degree temperatures. After reaching upwards of 96,000 feet and following the path of the New York Thruway, the balloon burst over Palmyra, New York, about 25 miles east of Rochester. Upon burst, it descended at more than 150 miles per hour until it reached thicker atmosphere. The balloon finally landed in a tall tree in Clifton Springs, about 10 miles southwest of Palmyra. The balloon’s camera took several thousand images, which Salmi said were “absolutely stunning. I needed to pry the waterproof case open with a flathead screwdriver since there was still a vacuum inside obtained during the flight.”

Salmi told the ARRL that the balloon ended up descending through a thunderhead or storm cell and saw strong updrafts: “Based on data from the balloon’s GPS, as well as images from the balloon’s camera, I’m pretty sure that hail forced the balloon upwards another 1723 feet when it was between 6,000-7000 feet for a short duration. I have never heard of this happening before to a high altitude balloon.”

Salmi said that the electronics worked “flawlessly. One club member largely designed the electronics system and PC boards, while K2GXT club members etched the double-sided PC boards. The TI MSP430 firmware that controlled the remote command capabilities -- including the nichrome wire cut-down system and light/sirens that several members programmed -- also performed amazingly. We had a group of other members who designed the microcontroller code, another group that designed the online web presence and another member that designed the radar reflector and others were there to help out with various aspects of the design.” The K2GXT ground crew could even command it remotely to transmit its GPS coordinates on command while in flight, turn the beeper/LEDs on and off and change between flight modes in-flight via DTMF code sequences.

“In the end, our club pulled of an incredible high altitude balloon flight, especially for its first try,” Salmi explained. “I honestly think we had one of the largest, most technical (yet our presentation was easily understandable) and interesting exhibits at ImagineRIT. Visitors could view the balloon’s location on a display using Google Earth. Many of the visitors were amazed that we were using ham radio to do this!”

Watch a video of the launch here.



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