A new Space Flash Build - Debrief


On the 10th of November, two high altitude balloons lifted off in the town of Merriwa, 4 hours from Sydney. These two balloons carried our communications test equipment, scientific test equipment, educational payloads and a meat pie. The meat pie was tasty from what I heard having endured the frosty temperatures of a near 30km altitude and then back to Earth in someone’s farm.

This mission or flashbuild was designed to be a stepping stone to a launch program that would see the space community reach space and through collaboration, build the technology readiness levels of multiple concepts into space businesses.

Tim Parsons of DeltaV and Alex Herlihy of the UNSW Techconnect program and also his own company Visual Metrics together developed this idea of a flashbuild. The program was inspired on Space Op’s Return to Sending (RTS) Mission 1. This mission in partnership with NextAero would make a liquid oxygen rocket up to 5km and intended to launch during September of 2018. Unfortunately, that did not happen. We lacked the necessary funding to get it going, but that concept to partner and mark a date in the future as a target to aim towards enabled both teams to explore ideas and progress development of technologies much faster. This method helped inspire the New Space Flashbuild for Tim.

The lift provider was the UNSW Bluesat High Altitude Balloon (HAB) team. Lead by UNSW student Adithya Rajendran, they had the volunteer team and the balloon launch site to conduct this first mission. All activities supervised by Associate Professor Elias Aboutanios. They had significant experience conducting HAB missions. Per balloon would hold APRS communication systems with redundant failsafe. To add was a commercial GPS device known as a SPOT GPS. Long story short, the tracking systems worked and both balloons recovered with pie intact.

Space Ops responsibility was organising payloads. This was our first attempt to corral a variety of disparate payloads together. Good practice for when we plan to do a rocket launch. There were quite a few, and they are listed as so:

  1. Space Ops Communication system: test with off the shelf radios. Very good range, receiving telemetry when at peak altitude but there wasn’t enough all round coverage with the payload spinning which would cause signal to completely drop out when at its furthest down range.

  2. Picosat Systems: testing of the imaging cameras with their picosat capturing horizon facing images.

  3. USYD Flat sat: testing of GPS sensors, onboard storage and accelerometer data capture.

  4. Spiral Blue: Raspberry Pi with a 4K webcam taking Eagle eye images of the Earth.

  5. Go Pro Cameras: we had a GoPro 7 and a GoPro Session 5.

  6. Ronald MacDonald House: children from RMDH help 3D print an energy making device. A coil of copper suspended with a spring would bounce from the vibrations of the balloon moving in the wind, a magnet at the core of the copper winding would cause a current to flow in the copper wire generating electricity. This was connected to an Arduino where it recorded the changing voltages to then calculate for power generation.

  7. Mic’s Lab: a visualisation of altitude mounted on the exterior of payload box 2 for which he also designed and laser cut the framing structure to holster a Garlo’s meat pie!

  8. Garlo’s meat pie: Marque sponsors of the event and Techconnect voucher recipient, they sponsored the event with meat pies which also enabled us to call the mission a “Pie in the Sky”.

  9. Insta360 camera: the only camera to provide visual evidence of the balloons travels whilst also providing everyone the opportunity to ride with the balloon to near space.

As you can see, we crammed as much as we could into this mission. We learnt quite a few valuable lessons when it comes to working with customers and the integration of payloads. In retrospect, I’m quite glad we had the opportunity to experience what we did from the event.

  1. Deadlines. We allowed the payloads to arrive practically the day before the event and even on the morning of the event. We had limited visibility of payload mass and dimensions until the last minute. The great issue of this was we needed to provide the mass data to the HAB team as it was critical for determining the total amount of helium required. But had to compromise because if we hadn’t set the deadline so late, we wouldn’t have been able to involve as many people as we did and shared this launch experience. Non-the less, engineering models are required next time if the real hardware isn’t available.

  2. Communication. Intentions, expectations and details needed to be made clearer from our side. We had a plan in our minds of the days event which we assumed was clear with everyone but as it would turn out, things changed rapidly in the final few days. Given this was our first event and the spirit of a flashbuild is to just go do things, planning was a bit of a luxury. None the less, key points were lost in the traffic and so events did not go as smoothly as planned.

  3. Last minute hacking. This is a real problem and something that time and time again causes simple mistakes. USB plugs get unplugged, labels don’t get stuck, sleep is deprived of…the details get lost in the mayhem of getting it all together. The solution is simple, get it all done before the actual day. Really, it should be all done at least one day before the actual launch event. But again, this is a flashbuild, we are working right up until the launch to pack all that we can.

  4. Testing hardware. Balloon one had the highest hopes to recover some amazing footage with our shiny new GoPro 7 and Session 5. Unfortunately, both died whilst on the ground. Likely due to human in experience operating the cameras. They recorded only a short amount of time but also with a delay to lift off balloon one, they did not record anything worthwhile. This was incredibly disappointing. Anything off the shelf should be familiarised as much as possible before the event.

So what next? Rocket launches! In the new year, we will be flying higher than this balloon mission. This project has provided many invaluable lessons, so we must continue and apply these to the next step soon.

Thanks to all involved who contributed time, money, sweat and lost sleep into making this all happen.

#newspaceflashbuild Tim Parsons of Delta V, UNSW Techconnect Alex Herlihy, team BLUEsat UNSW MVP Adithya with Shevaani, Jeffrey, Hamish, Emma and many others, rapid prototyping engineer Mic Black, Associate Professor Elias Aboutanios, OneGiantLeap team led by Jackie SlavieroPicosat Systems’ Conrad Pires, Delta-V and OrbitOz’s Gavan Huang, ACSER@UNSW’s Andrew Dempster and Joon Wayn Cheong, Azimuth Advisory Donna LawlerDr Xiao Feng Wu at USYD, Taofiq Huq at Spiral Blue, Ronald MacDonald House, JAR Aerospace, NSW Govt’s Helen PalmerBriony Sturgess, and Dr Paul Scully-Power. The NSW Dept of Industry’s Boosting Business Innovation Program, and of course Garlo’s Pies Pty Ltd! #Pie-in-the-Sky!

Patrick Wang