South Dakota State University team tabbed as NASA contest finalist

SDSU Marketing & Communications
Posted 3/6/23

BROOKINGS — What goes up must come down. That is the interesting dilemma for a group of South Dakota State University engineering students whose project has been selected as one of six finalists in a NASA competition.

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South Dakota State University team tabbed as NASA contest finalist


BROOKINGS — What goes up must come down. That is the interesting dilemma for a group of South Dakota State University engineering students whose project has been selected as one of six finalists in a NASA competition.

The six senior mechanical engineering majors entered NASA’s FLOATing DRAGON Challenge. That’s NASA’s simplified title for the Formulate, Lift, Observe, And Testing; Data Recovery And Guided On-board Node (FLOATing DRAGON) Balloon Challenge.

If you think that is complicated, try autonomously detaching a 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) data recovery vault from a large balloon 120,000 feet in the stratosphere and safely steering that 3- by 4-inch box back to a designated landing spot undamaged. That’s what NASA is asking of the SDSU team and five other schools from around the nation.

The National Institute of Aerospace, which manages the contest for NASA, said the finalists were selected from a “very competitive” field. It doesn’t disclose the number of entries.

When the contest was announced, the institute said it would select four finalists. However, when the announcement was made Jan. 30, “The judges decided to select six teams instead of four because of a combination of merit and diversity of concepts. Selecting six teams enables NASA to explore trade spaces for a wide variety of concepts tested by the universities. It’s a win-win,” the institute’s Robin L. Ford said.

SDSU’s competitors in the second phase of the contest are among the bluebloods of American engineering education — Princeton, Purdue, the University of Texas, the University of California-Davis and Notre Dame.

SDSU finalist in two NASA contests

The SDSU contingent is Ben Brainard, Prior Lake, Minnesota; Braydon Crawford, Flossmoor, Illinois; Adam Forman, Pierre; Zack Strong, Britton; Evan Talcott, Brandon; Brett Wartner, Marshall, Minnesota.

This group of Midwestern future engineers — all will graduate in May — is excited to draw on what they’ve learned during four years at South Dakota State to compete against contemporaries from well-recognized schools.

They’re even more excited to realize that the winning project might actually be utilized in a future NASA balloon project.

This is the second SDSU project to be selected as a NASA contest finalist this school year. The Break the Ice Lunar Challenge entry was one of 15 teams selected from around the world with most being professional space companies. A third group of SDSU students will submit their project design to NASA in yet another contest this spring.

Letcher: ‘No simple answers’

Todd Letcher, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department, is the adviser for each of these senior design projects.

“With all of these NASA design challenges, there seems like an obvious answer, but you know that’s not it. You have to think of everything. There are no simple answers.”

“What makes the FLOATing DRAGON project special is at the end, they actually want to use this (winning) system. By January (2024), NASA could incorporate into one of their balloon launches the technology we have worked on. A year from now they could very well be using one of the team’s projects to retrieve data regularly,” Letcher said.

Zack Strong said he was drawn to the NASA contest for his senior design project because it is a NASA contest. “It’s nationwide and being able to work with something NASA sponsors is huge and exciting.”

Classmate Evan Talcott said, “I wanted to work on the project since I worked at Raven Industries for two years in their Aerostar division. I got to see a few stratospheric balloon launches, which I found very fascinating. I thought this competition would be a great way for me to learn more about stratospheric balloons, their payloads and how they operate.

“I also thought it would be a great experience to compete in a NASA competition.”

Testing begins this spring

The students started working on their entry, which they dubbed Project Jack Drop, at the start of school in late August. Conceptual designs were due Jan. 8. Notification of finalists was Jan. 30. The finalists were sent their $5,000 project stipend Feb. 9. Software design review is May 18. Mission readiness review is July 2. Testing is Aug. 15 at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Flight data is returned to students Oct. 16. Teams then must submit a technical paper by Dec. 3. NASA meets with the selected finalist Jan. 8, 2024.

Letcher hopes the Project Jack Drop team will be well into testing by the time students scatter in May.

Among the challenges will be how to replicate the conditions of releasing an object from 120,000 feet. Letcher said testing will be incremental. The first release was from the second level of Chicoine Architecture, Mathematics and Engineering Hall. Students also have reached out to grain elevators and other owners of tall structures.

Eventually, the plan is to gain FAA permission to launch a small balloon to an elevation of 30,000 to 60,000 feet to test the release and recovery plan, student Adam Forman said.

Two-stage navigation system planned

Forman said Project Jack Drop is using a two-stage system. “Initially, we will use a drag chute (a smaller version of a standard parachute), and then at 60,000 feet we will switch to a parafoil, which will use autonomous guidance.” A parafoil is similar to a parachute except it behaves in flight more like an airplane wing and is more maneuverable.

The Project Jack Drop will use a 40-square-foot parafoil to bring down a data storage vault much smaller than one square foot.

Forman said the prize package will be guided to earth using a computer equipped with sensors to collect information on altitude, location (GPS) and angle of descent, and process that data to engage motors that adjust the parafoil lines to guide the parafoil through about 12 miles atmosphere before gently landing terra firma.

Strong said, “A lot of what we’re doing is tried and true technology.

But there is not a lot of information on parafoils at that elevation. They’re mostly used by people jumping off high buildings.”

Proposals stir excitement at NASA

Letcher has some experience working with high-altitude balloons through a project with another faculty member a few years ago. One of his takeaways was “you have to plan for a much more violent atmospheric conditions than expected,” he said. That work also was up to 120,000 feet, the FLOATing DRAGON’s point.

“There is very little air up there. Air density is low. The storage vault will start dropping like a rock, and there won’t be much to slow it down because there is no air drag,” Letcher said

In its press release, NASA stated that the projects students are developing “must have the capability to accurately target and navigate to a specific point on the ground in order to mitigate the risks associated with dropping objects from a balloon at a high altitude.

Sarah Roth, chief technologist of with the NASA Balloon Program Office, said, “This is no simple task. In addition to mitigating the safety risks to the public, these teams must also construct nodes that will integrate into our existing systems and be able to withstand ever-changing harsh environmental conditions at such a high altitude in the atmosphere.

“The ideas proposed by the university teams are incredibly novel, and we are excited to see how their systems will perform.”

The students at SDSU are equally as excited, Letcher said.