Away 27 High Altitude Mission

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Away 27              

Away 27 had several goals:  shake down of the new high wind launch system, carry a huge number of PongSats to the edge of space, and take photos of customer logos with curve of the Earth in the background.  We were also testing several system upgrades.

The launch kicked off with the team meeting at 6:00am.  The launch site overlooks the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

The dry lakebed wasn't so dry. There was still a lot of water down there.


The team really hummed. The team reconfigured itself three times during the mission. There are three action positions: launch prep, launch, and post launch. For launch preparation, the team splits into two groups: balloon fill and vehicle/van prep. Balloon fill had the big task of setting up the new launch system. It's a bit labor intensive, with a couple hundred stakes to set.

We had no wind at 6:00am; however, it picked up as launch approached. For the first time, wind was what we were looking for.


Team 27

           JPA Team

Away 27

Away 27       Team signatures           Our Sponsor             


      Balloon fill     Desert Monsters     

     Old method (from Away 26)                  The new method.

At launch, a crosswind took the balloons to the side of the Away 27 instead of  above it. Tracy and I tried to get the  vehicle under the balloons. We got close, but not close enough. When Away 27 pulled away from us, the balloons were still lifting at an angle. As it swung under the balloons, it hit the ground and tipped onto its side.  The whole thing was over in less than a second.  Away 27 climbed away and looked stable and intact.

         Away 27 in flight               In flight closeup           Customer logos

We picked ourselves up--yours truly took a face plant into a thorn bush--and rushed over to mission control to check the damage. Telemetry was a mess. The primary controller and one tracking system was down. The backup controller and beacon were fine. The secondary tracking system was not updating position. The mission control team started in on seeing what they could do with our injured patient.

Fifteen minutes into the flight, we reached a go/no-go point.  Once Away 27 crosses the lakebed, we need  fly a least forty miles down range. If we land in the middle the mud and washed out roads will make recovery difficult. The system had sufferered to much damage to continue and we made the decision to abort.

At 20,000 feet, the balloons were released, and Away 27 started down. Several team members were able to follow the vehicle down with binoculars. It was very apparent that the parachute did not deploy. From the cameras afterwards, we could see that the drouge parachute was pulled out and tangled from the launch bounce. Despite having no chute, Away 27 was descending relatively slowly. It was also very stable, solidly upright, and keeping its same face toward us. The vehicle landed 2.5 miles from the launch site. After impact, we were still getting telemetry. One of the tracking systems even came back to life and gave us an exact fix.

The recovery team headed out for retrieval. In spite of being so close, it still took forty-five minutes to reach Away 27.

It's pretty rugged out there. At first glance, the vehicle looked a mess. The decks are designed to collapse on landing to absorb energy. The everything is packed in foam boxes that can take a bit of abuse. One camera tore out of its box, but it was ok. The structure was destroyed, but no systems were damaged from the ground impact.

  Landing site          Recovery  

Some missions go perfect and some teach you a lot. Away 27 taught.
This mission was a huge leap towards our goal of all wind operations.  

We will be in contact with all the PongSat experimenters and ad customers for the reflight.

The Results:

    -Stable descent

    -Excellent shakedown of the high wind launch system

    -Allowed us to launch in high wind conditions and learn the next challenge for wind launches

    -Balloon separation system had a major upgrade and worked great

    -The operational skills of the team have really cranked up a notch; these are the folks I want running my Mars mission

We had tested the system in much higher winds and it worked great. the wind we were working in would have normally prevented even filling the balloons. However, crosswind was a different story. Since the flight, we have come up with several solutions for the crosswind problem. Those will be tried on the Away 29.

More pictures and in-flight video soon.

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This page was last edited on June 6, 2006
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