“Congratulations! You now have two antennas floating at the edge of space at 120,000 feet over western New Mexico, one for transmission at 10 watts on 1801 MHz, and the other receiving on 2263.5 MHz.” – Hank Schraeder, Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSFB), to the team at Southwest Antennas 7th September 2023.
When people think of NASA, they think big – rockets, moonshots, the International Space Station. But back on the ground, the organization also expends significant time and effort democratizing science and making space research accessible to those on somewhat more modest budgets.
At the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, NASA provides unmanned balloon services for universities and research organizations around the globe, helping them run experiments and managing launch, tracking and recovery. One of their partners is Louisiana State University, whose HASP (High Altitude Student Platform) venture carries multiple student-built payloads high into the stratosphere, at altitudes of up to 120,000 feet (36 kilometers).
HASP was designed to provide students with mid-atmospheric research opportunities on a platform that sits somewhere between small weather balloons and fully orbital satellites. HASP launches every year in August or September from a facility at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, with space for up to eight small payloads of around 3 kg weight and four large payloads of around 20 kg weight.
HASP streams telemetry data back to the ground, allowing the operators at Fort Sumner to keep an eye on the balloon’s progress and monitor it in real time. When NASA decided this communications system needed a performance boost, they turned to Southwest Antennas for an upgrade. The California-based manufacturer of RF and microwave solutions has previously worked with other divisions of NASA, and has established a reputation in the market not only for providing high-performance antenna products, but also for working with clients to solve unique challenges within rapid timeframes.
NASA needed a rugged antenna that would withstand the rigors of such high altitudes, with temperatures ranging from -55 to +55 degrees Celsius and pressures of down to 3 millibar. Southwest Antennas’ 1001-143 half-wave dipole omni antenna was selected as the tool for the job. Two of these antennas were installed on HASP – one for transmission at 10 watts on 1801 MHz, and the other receiving on 2263.5 MHz.
To help boost NASA’s confidence that the product was up to the task, Southwest Antennas ran extra testing to measure and confirm gain and beamwidth patterns, and also put the antenna through a rigorous stint in a temperature chamber. The company also provided expert integration support, advising NASA on the best locations on the HASP platform to place the antennas for optimal performance.
After launch, NASA and Southwest Antennas saw that their confidence was well-founded. The signal strength of the Quasonix receiver attached to the antennas was sampled approximately every 30 minutes, and the calculated real-world gain matched predictions extremely closely. Floating at the edge of space 120,000 feet over western New Mexico, the two antennas continued to perform as the range between HASP and the ground station at Fort Sumner increased.
Curtis Wooten, Engineering Supervisor at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, commented on the project’s success: “Thank you to Southwest Antennas for all your work to help us make this happen. Getting this system live will definitely help us provide better support to the science community, and we look forward to getting more of these in the air!”
HASP now serves the scientific community even more effectively than before, thanks not only to the ruggedness and high performance of Southwest Antennas’ offerings but also to the company’s dedication to customer service and expert support from concept through to flight.
Southwest Antennas enjoy the challenge of interesting and tough RF/Microwave antenna problems, so if you have a project that requires robust mission-critical communications, be sure to reach out to the team early on in the design phase, so that Southwest Antennas can ensure your success.