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ASTRA at the Royal Academy

Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering -from left to right: Dr. András Sóbester (ASTRA), HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Sir John Parker GBE FREng (President of the Academy), Christopher Paulson (ASTRA) and Dr. Steven Johnston (ASTRA).

Tuesday 16 October saw the official opening of Prince Philip House, the new building of the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. The Academy was founded in 1976 by Britain’s leading engineers, with the support of HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. He continues to serve as the Senior Fellow and was present at the opening ceremony, where he visited a small exhibition showcasing some of the research funded by the Academy.

We were very honoured to be selected to be amongst the exhibitors and were thrilled by the opportunity to discuss some of the achievements to date, as well as the future goals of the ASTRA initiative with the Senior Fellow, as well as with other Fellows of the Academy and other distinguished guests.

[Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering -from left to right: Dr. András Sóbester (ASTRA), HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Sir John Parker GBE FREng (President of the Academy), Christopher Paulson (ASTRA) and Dr. Steven Johnston (ASTRA)].

The ASTRA team host Smallpeice trust course for Yr 12 pupils

The ASTRA team host Smallpeice trust course for Yr 12 pupils

A residential summer course organised by the Smallpeice Trust was delivered in partnership with the University of Southampton Faculty of Engineering and the Environment and Microsoft. The students had the opportunity to experience some of the technologies used or developed by the ASTRA team over the last year.

Ramjet - Pupils in the ramjet laboratory.

Ramjet – Pupils in the ramjet laboratory.

Day one began with a welcome talk from Prof. Simon Cox, followed by an icebreaker session and a tour of the Highfield campus, including demonstrations of one of the wind tunnels, a ram jet engine, a 3D printer, and a visit to the Iridis 3 supercomputer, one of the largest computational facilities in the UK, and named as the fastest Microsoft Windows-powered computer in all of Europe.

Building computers - Pupils assembling supercomputer.

Building computers – Pupils assembling supercomputer.

After lunch and an introduction to supercomputing, the students were set the task of building supercomputer nodes from scratch with boxes of commodity hardware. Their day did not end there: next they were given an introductory talk on ‘Engineering the Perfect Wing’, followed by an excercise involving the use of a flow analysis code to design an aerofoil optimisation for minimum drag.

Flight simulation - Pupils in the University's flight simulator.

Flight simulation – Pupils in the University’s flight simulator.

Day two started with a talk on ‘Computers and Simulations in Aerospace Engineering’ by Dr Andras Sobester. The students were then set their challenge for the week; each team was asked ‘What role do you see computers playing in the development of aircraft engines, cabins, fuselages, landing gears, galleys. During the rest of the day the students then got the opportunity to fly in the University’s state of the art flight simulator. In the morning the students were also given a talk on ‘Exploring the Atmosphere and its Impact on Aviation’. The talk included an introduction to ASTRA.

In the afternoon the students were introduced to rapid prototyping, which began with a talk on 3D printing and .NET Gadgeteer, including a live coding demo by Dr Steven Johnston. The students then had the opportunity to get their hands on the .Net Gadgeteer kits, and each team was given their own sensors to program.

Phone app - Students working on WP7 app.

Phone app – Students working on WP7 app.

Day three started early with a lecture on ‘Exploring the Atmosphere – the Role of Computer Simulations.’ The task was to use the ASTRA trajectory prediction code to simulate the flight of a balloon launched from the University campus. By changing the type of lifting gas, balloon and parachute type, as well as the amount of helium pumped into the balloon, they were required to ‘land’ the virtual flight as close to a target landing site as possible. Next came an introduction to Windows Phone 7 including a live demo of how to write and deploy an app using Visual Studio. The teams of students were then each given an HTC Surround phone, and asked to develop a location app with guidance from the team at the Microsoft Institute for High Performance Computing at the University. The app had to display the location of a simulated balloon launch on a map, providing the user with flight information.

WWT - Data visualisation in the World Wide Telescope.

WWT – Data visualisation in the World Wide Telescope.

After lunch, the students were joined for the rest of the day by Mr Geoff Hughes from Microsoft Academic Relations, who gave a very interesting Q&A session. The afternoon was based around the concept of visualising ‘Big Data.’ After a World Wide Telescope (WWT) demo, the students were asked to visualise the data gathered by the ASTRA 8 launch, using WWT. The students also took part in a presentation practise and critiquing session before their talks the following day. The students then got the opportunity attend a formal dinner in The Hartley Suite along with other Smallpeice Trust course attendees.

The winners - The winning team.

The winners – The winning team.

Day four began with a final briefing and last minute tweaks to the students’ presentations. Then at 11:00 everyone gathered for the team presentations, delivered to the Associate Dean for Enterprise and Chair of the Faculty IT Forum. All of the talks were of a very high standard but there could only be one winning team, and each member received a signed copy of ‘Stratospheric Flight: Aeronautics at the Limit’ and a model of the first day’s optimized aerofoil, created using one of the Faculty’s 3D printers.

Gadgeteer winners - Two of the students left with Gadgeteer kits as prizes.

Gadgeteer winners – Two of the students left with Gadgeteer kits as prizes.

 

Two other lucky students were selected for an outstanding achievement during the week, each received a .NET Gadgeteer kit courtesy of Microsoft Research UK. Looking back on the week, a great time was had by all and it’s nearly time to start organising next year’s course!

Thanks to Microsoft for all their generous support, and a special thanks for lending us the Windows Phones and the .NET Gadgeteer kits which made the event possible.

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.

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.

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.

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.

First flight of the ASTRA Atom 1 thwarted by high winds

First flight of the ASTRA Atom 1 thwarted by high winds

The maiden flight of the ASTRA Atom 1, a balloon-borne, fully rapid protyped platform (even its electronic systems were built from .net Gadgeteer building blocks) will now take place at a later date – 20 knot surface winds with 30 knot gusts made for very unfavourable conditions today. Watch this space for new dates for the first flight.

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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.

ASTRA 8 - farther, longer, higher

ASTRA 8 – farther, longer, higher

ASTRA 8 used largely the same hardware as ASTRA 7, based on an HTC Trophy smartphone running Windows Phone 7. Its goal was to push the technology demonstrated by ASTRA 7 further by exposing the vehicle to stratospheric conditions for longer and at a higher altitude.

ASTRA 8 reached a maximum altitude of just over 23,200 meters (76,115 feet) during its 2h 40′ flight. The maximum groundspeed reached by ASTRA 8 was around 45knots (~23m/s) as the balloon-borne flight train was traversing the jet stream. The above image, generated using the Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope, shows the trajectory of ASTRA 8 as recorded by the phone (green trace) and as predicted by the balloon flight modeling software developed by the ASTRA team.

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.