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ASTRA Cube into the sunset

ASTRA Cube into the sunset

 

A key goal of the ASTRA initiative is to reduce the development cycle time of a high altitude atmospheric research platform to mere days from specification (that is, the definition of the space, weight, power and exposure requirements of the instruments to be flown) to test flight.

The ASTRA Cube demonstrator was conceived to test two key rapid prototyping technologies we aim to use towards this goal: additive manufacturing and rapid electronic prototyping. ABS-based 3d printing represented the former here, while for the latter we used .NET Gadgeteer (an open-source toolkit for building small electronic devices using the .NET Micro Framework and Visual Studio/Visual C# Express).

Launched from a MetOffice research facility, during its stratospheric flight lasting just over 4 hours ASTRA 12 reached a peak altitude of just under 35km (~115,000 feet), during which it recorded temperature (dipping to -61C), pressure, humidity and images, as well as key parameters of its trajectory. The imagery captured by the small Gadgeteer camera included the sunset picture shown above, which, incidentally, also depicts the gravity waves picked up three hours earlier by ASTRA 10.

The clip below illustrates the rapid development process which the ASTRA Cube resulted from.

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ASTRA 10 captures images of gravity waves

ASTRA 10 captures images of gravity waves

ASTRA 10 was one of a series of flights designed to provide calibration data for the ASTRA balloon trajectory simulation code.

The flight, conducted in collaboration with the MetOffice, was also aimed at testing the feasibility of using a Nokia Lumia 800 smartphone (running the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system) as a communications, tracking, data logging and imaging device.

Airborne for 2 hours and 22 minutes, ASTRA 10 reached an apogee altitude of over 32km (~105,000 feet), and, in addition to trajectory data, it captured over 2GB worth of imagery, including shots of gravity wave clouds above South Wales. These are generated by an airmass being forced to rise in a stable atmosphere. Eventually gravity will bring the airmass back down, but it will overshoot its equilibrium height, rising once again – this process repeating multiple times creates the ripple effect seen on the picture below.

 

Internal Gravity Waves - Gravity wave clouds, as seen by ASTRA 10.

Internal Gravity Waves – Gravity wave clouds, as seen by ASTRA 10.

Payload train - ASTRA 10 ready for launch.

Payload train – ASTRA 10 ready for launch.

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The new ASTRA glider undergoes air-launch tests

The new ASTRA glider undergoes air-launch tests

The latest iteration of the ASTRA atmospheric research glider flew from a series of air-launches this morning. Carried aloft by a larger (powered) ‘mother ship’, the glider successfully completed a number of flights over a cold and misty Southern Hampshire.

Glider released at the top of the climb.

Glider released at the top of the climb.

Release!

Glider released at the top of the climb.

Designed for robustness and versatility, the glider has a release mechanism, which enables flights from high altitude balloons. On this occasion the powered RC mother ship was used as a low cost alternative to the multiple balloons such testing would have required.

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ASTRA balloon tracking station testing and Masat-1

ASTRA balloon tracking station testing and Masat-1

We have spent the last few days testing our new high altitude balloon tracking station. In the absence of any scheduled balloon flights (due to unfavourable jetstream conditions above the British isles) we tracked Masat-1, a 1U-class CubeSat nano-satellite built by our colleagues at the Technical University of Budapest (BME) and launched earlier this month on the maiden flight of ESA’s new light launch vehicle (Vega).

Masat-1 Satellite telemetry window and orbit displays.

Masat-1 Satellite telemetry window and orbit displays.

Masat-1

Satellite telemetry window and orbit displays.

Masat-1, transmitting in the 70cm band, was an ideal ‘surrogate’ for our balloon transmitters, which we plan to fly in the near future as part of a series of student projects, as well as stratospheric research missions (ironically, the Masat-1 team had used a balloon flight to test their tracking station prior to the launch of the CubeSat!). Click on the image to see some of the decoded telemetry from the small spacecraft, as well as the orbital characteristics of the last few passes above our station.

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BALUGA One balloon release testing

BALUGA One balloon release testing

BALUGA One (Balloon- or Aircraft Launched Unmanned Glider for Atmospheric research One), our new, high altitude instrument platform underwent initial trials at the MetOffice Research Unit at Cardington.

Conducted using a tethered balloon (operated by the MetOffice), the balloon attachment system, as well as the balloon release mechanism of the new ASTRA glider was tested. With a release weight of 2kg, BALUGA One is designed to be launched from a high altitude, free balloon. Fitted with a sophisticated autopilot, BALUGA One is capable of returning its payload package to the launch location (or some other pre-determined collection site). See the Documents and Publications section for more details on the glider.

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ASTRA 7 - cloud computing from beyond the cloud

ASTRA 7 – cloud computing from beyond the cloud

ASTRA 7 was designed to demonstrate the feasibility of using a low-powered, lightweight commodity device (an HTC Trophy running Windows Phone 7) as a data logger, communications link and a portal to high performance computing resources in the cloud (through Windows Azure).

ASTRA 7 reached a maximum altitude of 18,237 meters during its 1h 16′ flight. The Segoz Logger apprunning on the WP7 operated, as designed, throughout the flight, providing location notifications to Windows Azure when in GSM range (with the Azure worker re-computing the forecast landing site each time). The maximum speed reached by ASTRA 7 was around 90mph, logged at an altitude of 10.1km, as the balloon-borne flight train was traversing the jet stream. ASTRA 7 landed 46.6 miles downrange (very close to the pre-flight prediction based on the ASTRA balloon flight simulation model of 47.7 miles). ASTRA 7 also took over 1200 photos during its flight (one of which is shown above).

The launch was covered in the press by Computer Weekly (more images) and by the Guardian.

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StratoShuttle 1

StratoShuttle 1

StratoShuttle 1

The StratoShuttle 1 pod, launched from Cheesefoot Head (near Winchester) on 28.11.2011, was the result of a Faculty of Engineering and the Environment fourth year student group design project. The aim was to lift a small instrument package into the stratosphere using a helium balloon (the pod carried a camera, which took the images shown above).

The secondary goal was to validate our trajectory prediction models, which, given an up-to-date atmospheric sounding (performed shortly before the launch) generated a forecast of the flight path of StratoShuttle 1. This flight also served as a test of our payload retrieval technology (once the balloon reaches its bursting altitude, the payload descends on a parachute, at the same time drifting in a direction and over a distance determined by the winds aloft).

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