SSI 63 Shatters World Record (Again)

On December 9th, 2017, the Stanford Student Space Initiative (SSI) Balloons Team soared to new heights for high altitude latex balloons research with the launch of ValBal Mk VIII. Our high altitude balloon ValBal, short for “Valve-Ballast”, is a novel platform that uses a valve to vent helium gas and releases biodegradable BB pellets as ballast to maintain altitude stability. Additionally, the new ValBal design introduced essential innovations for space technology, including flexible 3D printed parts and a new control algorithm. 

SSI-63 was the first ValBal launch of the 2017-2018 school year, a wondrous experience for new balloons members and veterans alike. Early Saturday morning we all set off to Hollister to launch our balloon, and although we had planned to fly SSI-63 in tandem with its SSI-64 Carbon copy (pun intended), we ultimately made the decision to launch only SSI-63 while reserving SSI-64 to break the transatlantic record.

This flight incorporated several new elements, from cost-effective and simple-to-assemble 3D printed structures, an autonomous altitude controller that improved our self-equilibrating latex balloon, a new avionics breakout board, and more. 

Throughout the 5 long days of nonstop flight control monitoring via the High Altitude Balloon Mission Control Suite, or HABMC, our balloon made several loops through California, journeyed across Nevada, Arizona, and even Mexico before finally descending in southeast New Mexico after exhausting all of its ballast. 

With an astounding 121 hours and 34 minutes, the results of the SSI-63 flight surpassed the previous world record of 88 hours and 40 minutes for the longest duration flight by a latex balloon.  

Balloon recovery was very successful, with minimal damage to the payload structure overall. The amazing feats of SSI-63 confirmed several predictions, as ValBal is an inexpensive alternative to launching satellites or flying planes for many applications. In the future, ValBal may be used to fly an ice radar to track global warming progress in Greenland, monitor natural disasters such as the wildfires in southern California, and as an aircraft testing telemetry relay.

As 2018 descends upon us, the SSI Balloons team is excited and working harder than ever to revolutionize high altitude balloons research. Our goal is to circumnavigate the world within the next year, and the launch of SSI-64 in January will mark the beginning of a new era.

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Launching Balloons at Total Solar Eclipse

This August 21st, SSI had the wonderful opportunity to view and launch some balloons from Central Oregon during the Great American Eclipse.
Photo Credits to Anjali Roychowdhury
In order to launch in the band of full totality, we endured a 12-hour drive up to Oregon, braving traffic, supply shortages, and the hoards of people also vying to catch a glimpse of this incredible sight.
The SSI Family
Once we arrived, we prepared to launch two payloads; a live ATV video stream and sun tracking photography payload, and ValBal Mk VIII-A.
The ATV and photography payload included a DSLR, a drone camera attached to the ATV live stream video transmission system, and three Go-Pro cameras, one of which was modified with a motor system and magnetometer to track the sun during flight.
This ValBal flight was a test of a brand new mechanical system made of three 3D printed modules: a ballast module which controlled the release of the biodegradable BB pellets we use as ballast, a payload support, and a valve module which opened or closed to control the release of helium from the balloon during flight control. This new design is a monumental step forward in our technology, not only making ValBal much easier to assemble, but also reducing weight by over 40%, giving us longer flight times and a greater capacity for cool scientific experiments.
About to launch ValBal Mk VIII-A
We launched our photography payload from Ochoco state park just in time to catch the eclipse, and our photography payload captured some amazing images of the total eclipse from thousands of feet in the atmosphere! We launched ValBal right after the eclipse.
The total eclipse from thousands of feet in elevation
We watched our balloon disappear into the sky as darkness set down upon us. From our launch location, high on a cliff, we could see all around us for miles. The shadow of the moon rushed towards us and then everything went dark. The horizon glowed all around, like a 360-degree sunset. The sun itself was replaced by a black circle surrounded by a bright ring, the suns corona. We stared up at it for a minute in awe, and then the moon moved on and the sun came back into view. The light flooded back over the landscape and it looked like a time lapse of a sunrise.
A full minute of darkness
It was a breath taking experience, and wouldn't have been possible without everyone who helped contribute.
SSI-58 mission patchFinally, we would like to thank the Platt family for generously hosting us at their home.

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SSI 52 Breaks World Record (Again)

On May 22nd, 2017, at about 9:00AM, we launched our two-time world record breaking, self-equilibrating latex balloon payload, called ValBal (since it uses a valve to vent helium gas to reduce lift, and drops ballast to reduce mass and rise).
SSI-52 Mission Patch
SSI-52 was our first launch of the spring quarter and our first test of a new generation of avionics, as well as a test of a new polycarbonate mechanical structure.

Though launches usually take multiple hours, we streamlined our operational procedures for this launch so well that we launched only 40 minutes after arriving on site at Brigantino Park, in Hollister, CA.  SSI-52 smoothly equilibrated at about 15 km, even higher than commercial airlines flight paths, and floated east as we all sat on the edges of our seats.
Balloon Team Co-lead Davy Ragland with ValBal Prior to Launch
We monitored ValBal over the course of several sleepless nights and cheered it on as it struggled through a rough storm in North Carolina. Eventually, it passed the point of no return and flew out over the Atlantic Ocean, becoming our second balloon payload ever to do so.

After just over 79 hours of flight, ValBal again broke the world record for the longest duration flight by a latex balloon.

As the days dragged on, ValBal began to run low on both power and ballast capacity, but neither of those ultimately ended the mission. After 3 days, 16 hours, and 40 minutes of flight, the balloon popped and ValBal proceeded to fall under the parachute for the descent, finally landing in the Atlantic Ocean half an hour later off the coast of Western Sahara. SSI-52 Flight Path

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SSI 47 Breaks World Record

On November 5th, 2016 Stanford Student Space Initiative's Balloons Team launched a High Altitude Balloon named ValBal, short for "Valve-Ballast" - a novel platform that utilizes a gas venting valve and a ballast dispenser to zero its ascent rate and maintain a nearly constant altitude.  Conceived in the winter of 2014, ValBal has been in development and testing for over a year and a half.  This November, ValBal broke the world record for the longest duration flight of a latex balloon, flying from Modesto, CA to the outskirts of Quebec City, Canada.
This flight of more than 79 hours adds almost 10 hours to the previous world record, also set by SSI with an earlier version of ValBal in June of 2016. The ValBal platform is capable of autonomous and dynamic altitude control, a significant improvement over the passive control employed by the previous record holders. This capability allows ValBal to carry kilogram-scale research payloads for extended periods in the upper atmosphere, which SSI hopes to begin flying next year. The team will be presenting their work at the 2017 IEEE Aerospace Conference in March, 2017.
A video detailing this launch can be found at

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Balloons 2016 Year in Review

9 Launches.
19 Balloons.
Countless hours of work sessions and launch prep.
1 World Record.

It’s been an exciting second year for the Balloons team.

We kicked off the beginning of fall quarter with new member onboarding launches. New members were split up into teams and given a variety of goals to aim for: some pertaining to ballooning basics, and other that the balloons team has yet to accomplish, yielding payloads that had a wide range of capabilities.

Onboarding launch: SSI-23, SSI-24, and SSI 25 prepare for launch!

The fast-paced, rudimentary projects allowed new members to gain valuable hands-on experience with the basics of high altitude ballooning, from avionics, to payload construction, to launch procedures.

Moving forward, the team focused on data collection and testing that would aid us in improving flight duration. One project group took on the issue of UV degradation of latex. The data we gathered allowed us to better characterize UV-A and UV-B dispersion by altitude, and some further steps were taken investigating the plausibility and effectiveness of coatings that would absorb and reflect UV light. Another group took on development of a solar-tracking apparatus that would reorient a solar panel array to face the direction of strongest sunlight and thus generate more consistent photocurrent.

Shortly after, we became intrigued with the idea of a modular payload platform – a way to standardize the balloon payload in a way that would facilitate launch prep and be advantageous down the line when flying research payloads.

Integral to the realization of this goal was Project SPACE: a project created last year dedicated to the mechanical modularization of the balloon payload. Inspired by last year’s Project SPACE Tesseract, we created HABHIVE. As a modular payload platform, HABHIVE is designed to expedite the payload construction process and facilitate the launching of new projects, including sensor packages, cameras, and so forth, with minimized mechanical production necessary prior to launches. The platform features interchangeable, customized walls that are switched out based upon the needs of different projects.

Equally as important to the modular payload is the electrical design. That being said, the development of customized avionics has also made tremendous strides this year. Our unique PCB design is a highly flexible, feature-rich platform for standard profile high altitude balloon flights. It is responsible for all the basic functionalities of a balloon payload, including thermal regulation, data-logging, and—in the near future—RF communications. The HABHIVE team and the avionics development division often work together and have cross membership to ensure a seamless integration between the two parts to create a unified whole.

SSI-39 – the first flight of HABHIVE V2 and standardized avionics PCB
Conceived in the winter of 2014, ValBal has been in development and testing for over a year and a half. ValBal, short for "Valve-Ballast" is a novel platform that utilizes a gas venting valve and a ballast dispenser to stabilize altitude. The payload was recently awarded first place in the “Best Design” category of the Global Space Balloon Challenge. Shortly thereafter, ValBal Mk5.1 flew for a distance of over 3,500 miles, spanning the entire North American continent, for over 70 hours, breaking a world record for longest duration flight of a latex balloon! You can read more about the record breaking flight here.

Lastly, our web-based mission control suite, habmc, through launch-to-launch development and iteration, has proven an outstanding asset to the team. The suite handles satellite communications, provides data visualization, and illustrates restricted airspaces to name just a few of its capabilities. Through habmc, all of SSI and hundreds of other on-lookers can track payloads during flights. Stay tuned and visit to track our future launches in the upcoming year!

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