Balloon Makes Near-space Flight

A near-space image showing the curvature of the earth, taken on one of Project Blue Horizon's launches. 
A group of graduate students has broken the world amateur high-altitude balloon record in a recent near-space flight that exceeded 125,000 feet. The balloon launch was the capstone effort of Project Blue Horizon (PBH), an educational component of a three-year program known as Lockheed Martin's Engineering Leadership Development Program. The group’s 19 students are employed at Lockheed Martin Systems Integration in Owego, NY, while completing their systems engineering master's degrees at Cornell.

PBH is a space-flight program that incorporates amateur radio (also known as ham radio) technologies. Onboard global positioning systems and amateur radio technology allow for monitoring of launch, ascent, descent and recovery, with high-resolution images 20 miles above the earth's surface recorded. The balloon is made of latex — not unlike those at birthday parties — and stretches up to 40 feet in diameter, according to Michael Baldwin, PBH chief engineer.

In two previous flights, the PBH team had discovered that optimizing the amount of helium in the balloon was a key component to a successful mission, Baldwin said. In the latest flight, the students also placed a blanket over the balloon's payload to reduce radiation exposure.

The students' flight beat the previous amateur altitude record by nearly 5,000 feet, according to the company. A national database of Amateur Radio High-Altitude Balloon flight records reports more than 40 teams currently competing in such categories as highest altitude, highest ascent rate, longest distance and longest flight time.

"We were all really enthused and wanted to do this, but there was no way one of us could have done this by ourselves," Baldwin said. "We really had to work together as a team efficiently."

Many agencies and companies are examining high-altitude balloon flight for exploration and surveying, as well as for detecting radio frequencies. Future PBH teams will launch missions that include long-duration flights, trans-Atlantic flights, multi-balloon missions and the release of unmanned vehicles from near-space altitudes, according to the company.