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.
Mission Control Suite (HABMC - left) and graph of previous ValBal launch records for endurance (right)
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.