Mission 3: Liftoff! Balloon Deployment and Data Collection
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Mission 3: Liftoff! Balloon Deployment and Data Collection

How can we use balloons to collect data via small model satellites?

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This workshop is part of the πŸ›°οΈ CubeSats workshop series from PLIX.

Background & Materials

Workshop at a Glance

In this mission, we will take to the field to launch our satellites into β€œorbit!" Using a tethered balloon, we’ll deploy our models to collect information about the local environment, and also create artworks using data, gravity, and environmental conditions.

  • Age Range: 8–13 years old (great for family participation, as well!)
  • Group Size: 12–20 participants
  • Number of Facilitators: 1–2
  • Session Length: 90 minutes
  • Cost: $20–$25 per participant (high due to helium costs)
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PLIX Tip: Remember, like all PLIX activities, we encourage you to use this guide as a jumping off point β€” feel free to remix it to suit your local community! And if you try something new, we'd love to hear about it on the PLIX Discussion Forum.

Supply Kit

mylar balloons (like these ones)
rubber bands
gloves
zip ties
duct tape
hook & loop closure (Velcro)
helium (4-5 of these tanks)
optional: Cones
Feel free to get creative with the balloons you use: in one playtest, patrons in Denmark used emoji-shaped mylar balloons!
Feel free to get creative with the balloons you use: in one playtest, patrons in Denmark used emoji-shaped mylar balloons!

Weather Conditions

Balloon launches do NOT work well in the rain (and the satellite prototypes will not, either), so certainly plan a back-up date if your initial launch is washed out. Also, if it's too windy outside it will be easy to get the balloon up, but very difficult to control and gather consistent data. As a general rule of thumb, your body is the best determinant of launch conditions; if you're happy, the balloon will be, too!

Selecting a Field Site

In most areas, you won't need permission to do a tethered balloon launch (but do a quick Google search to double-check). When selecting a field site for launch, the most important consideration is the adjacency of nearby buildings (and power lines). Strive for 50-100 yards of space on all sides from nearby buildings. In our play-testing, we launched from public tennis courts, which worked well, and allowed for safe distancing from trees, buildings, and passers-by.

Our friends at Ballerup Public Library in Denmark selected an exemplary launch site!
Our friends at Ballerup Public Library in Denmark selected an exemplary launch site!

Safety

Plan for one facilitator to deploy the balloon at all times (controlling the tether/slack; must wear gloves at all times), and another to focus on attaching satellites to the tether. At no point should you let patrons have control of the tether line! However, they can help in the attachment process. When starting launch, ensure a safe distance between the balloon and patrons; there is a chance that the CubeSat will detach, the line will break, or that the payload will dislodge from the chassis. You can set up cones or flags to denote the safety perimeter.

Preparing for Launch

Plan for about 45 minutes of prep. time before the start of the workshop: you'll use this time to inflate the balloons, and prepare the tether and rig for attaching patrons' prototypes. Each tank of helium will fill between 2 and 3 mylar balloons. For launch, you'll want to use at least 3 balloons per tether, but you will need more if the prototypes are too heavy or if the line breaks. In total, plan to fill between 6 and 9 balloons. For safety reasons, we recommend only launching one satellite at a time. Use 1 - 2 carabiners or zip ties to create a rig for attaching balloons; if using zip ties, make sure that you have scissors on-site to easily remove satellites!

Workshop Flow

Introductory Activity: Safety Orientation and Run of Show

Suggested Timing: 10 minutes

Spend five minutes or so describing the safety protocols as outlined above. Then, depending on the number of satellites you need to deploy, create a rough schedule with order of launch, and equal flight duration for each payload to gather data.

Main Activity: Balloon Deployment!

Suggested Timing: 60 minutes

The focus of this session is to deploy patrons' satellites and payloads on balloons! Because you are using between 4 and 7 balloons, you'll only be able to launch one satellite at a time. Schedule the session such that each patron will have at least three minutes to gather data.

A 2U cubesat launched from a play-test on the MIT campus!
A 2U cubesat launched from a play-test on the MIT campus!

Come-Together: Share-Out

Suggested Timing: 20 minutes

Spend the remaining time allowing patrons to show off the data they've collected! Also reflect on the entire build and launch process:

  • What do the data collected tell you?
  • What other types of data would you be interested in gathering using this technique?
  • Did your satellite perform as expected?
  • In what ways would you alter your design for a future launch?
Experimenting with detecting vegetation on the MIT campus using aerial imaging.
Experimenting with detecting vegetation on the MIT campus using aerial imaging.

Additional Resources

  • Looking for some background music? Check out our Space Explorations Spotify Playlist 🎢
  • Questions? Ask them on the PLIX Discussion Forum πŸ™‹β€β™€οΈ
  • Share your experience running these workshops on the PLIX Discussion Forum or on social media using #PLIXCubeSats πŸ›°οΈ

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