Wednesday, January 26, 2011

UC San Diego Weather Balloon Journeys South of the Border

It’s a bird… it’s a plane… no wait a minute... it’s a weather balloon. A weather balloon recently launched from the UC San Diego campus traveled 300 miles until landing on a mountain slope between Puerto Penasco and Caborca, Mexico on the north-eastern edge of the Gulf of California.
The weather balloon, equipped with data transmitters and GPS locators, was launched by a group of UC San Diego mechanical and aerospace engineering students. The students, led by Prof. John Kosmatka, initiated the launch to flight test and develop experience with zero-pressure balloons. The students’ previous weather balloons traveled to a much higher altitude (90,000 feet or 17 miles) and burst, but traveled a short distance (5-10 miles). Zero- pressure balloons, such as the one used in the recent launch, rise to a predetermined altitude (such as 45,000 feet or 9 miles up - the lower edge of the stratosphere), then are pushed by the winds until they gently come down in the evening as the air and helium cool.

For Kosmatka and his students, the recent launch was a huge success.

“We learned that these balloons are very easy to load, launch, and track,” Kosmatka said. “Experimental data can be recorded and transmitted via ham radios to the internet, so that anyone in the world can monitor the flight progress. For this flight we monitored GPS location (latitude, longitude), altitude, speed, temperature, and air pressure. For most of the six-hour flight, the balloon cruised at 45,000 feet (lower edge of the stratosphere) where the air temperature is close to minus 60 Fahrenheit and the air pressure is only 2 pounds per second.

“These balloons have the research advantage in that data can be collected across a greater area at a specific altitude assuming that the winds are blowing in the right direction and are strong enough,” he added.

Kosmatka and his students plan to develop a variety of environmental and structural engineering experiments that will be flown on a future flight along with science payloads provided by local high school students.

The engineers have launched a total of six weather balloons since 2008. The launches are sponsored by the California Space Grant Consortium. Last fall, the students sent a weather balloon up 80,000 feet to near space to study the effects of solar power, climate change and the survival rate of anti-freeze beetles. Read more about that launch here.

Track the progress of previous and future balloon launches on the UCSD Near Space Balloon site.