weather balloon

Spindel said the team is looking to apply for the NASA CubeSAT Launch Initiative (NCSLI) program, which works with universities to launch their hardware into space.

In 2019, the DukeSAT team of JMU information, science and technology (ISAT) students and faculty began to work on software for a weather balloon experiment they would launch into the atmosphere. On Nov. 7, the 2022 DukeSAT team of ten ISAT students and faculty launched a single, high-altitude weather balloon. HiSAT One, the weather balloon capstone project, reached an altitude of 60,000 feet and traveled more than 100 miles over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One of the faculty overseeing the project, ISAT professor Jonathan Spindel, said this is only phase one of the project.

“The long-range goal of the DukeSAT program is to launch a series of small-cube satellites into space,” Spindel said. “This CubeSat network would serve to provide other low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites more ready access to ground networks through the DukeSAT ground communication channels.” 

CubeSats are small satellites for space research that are typically launched out of the international space station. CubeSats collect data typically in LEO to find data covering weather patterns, forest fires and other possible natural disasters. 

Spindel said the goal is for the DukeSAT satellites to form a mesh network of cube satellites in LEO. This larger network of satellites would be called “MeshSAT,” a term coined by Spindel with JMU students early in the development process.

One 2021 DukeSAT team member, Rachel Berry (‘21), said she and her fellow students were part of the “mesh network experimentation'' component of the DukeSAT project. Berry said she and the team created and wrote the code for the prototype satellites, tested the functionality of the code across campus and troubleshot any issues along the way.

“UVA and some other Virginia schools have satellites in space for days and months,” Berry said. “I imagine the next step for the team would be launching a permanent or semipermanent satellite in space.” 

The reason for the connected network of MeshSAT satellites, Spindel said, is to address connectivity and communication issues often faced by small satellites in LEO. Spindel said LEO satellites are usually only able to send signals when they’re over a ground station, making it more challenging to receive timely information when it might be needed.  

The MeshSAT network itself would serve as a relay network for other LEO CubeSats that are used to send weather, fire, animal tracking and other natural occurrence information faster to the organizations that need it, Spindel said. 

Bryan Cage, co-faculty director of the DukeSAT team and assistant professor of biology, is involved in supporting the networking and ground communications side of the project and worked to help with the launch, tracking and recovery of HiSAT One.

“[HiSAT] ended up near a fire road,” Cage said. “It was pretty easy to find, which, you can imagine, might not always be the case.”

Cage said the system has two different GPS trackers, cameras to locate where the weather balloon had landed and an audible beacon on the apparatus that he said was “critical” in retrieving the payload once it reached the ground. 

This retrieval segment of the experiment showcased the DukeSAT team’s ability to recover their hardware, which will make funding more possible and feasible. 

Spindel said the team is currently working on a second launch with three to five weather balloons that have networking hardware and hopes for higher altitudes — possibly over 100,000 feet.

Following a successful set of HiSAT balloon launches, Spindel said the team would look to apply for the NASA CubeSAT Launch Initiative (NCSLI) program and seek other private-sector opportunities to take the project into space. The NCSLI program works with universities to launch the hardware they’ve engineered into space. 

Spindel said launching that hardware on a satellite in space would take more funding and solid testing, and the HiSAT experiments are a necessary step in this direction.

Funding has previously come from Venturewell and the JMU Madison Trust, plus a small amount from faculty professional development provided by ISAT, Spindel said. He said he hopes that if future launches are successful, DukeSAT will receive larger funding from state and national corporate sponsors.

Cage said that one outlet for funding they would like to try would be a live stream of the second launch where people can donate to the DukeSAT team. 

Cage and Spindel said they believe they’ll be able to test their MeshSAT network on multiple HiSAT balloons in January or February 2022. Like space launches, weather and wind patterns are key factors, so launch dates might vary. 

“The HiSAT high-altitude balloon experiments are just a stepping stone to a program where we hope that JMU students would actually put satellites into space,” Spindel said. “After we prove the MeshSAT systems with the launch of multiple balloons, we hope to get the opportunity to test this concept in space.”

Contact JJ Hensley at henslejj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.