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The balloon carried three cameras to photograph the drawings in flight, and the children who made them were able to follow its journey live from the hospital

UPC students launch balloon into stratosphere with drawings made by children at Sant Joan de Déu Hospital

On Saturday, 4 March at 11 a.m. local time, a team of 20 students of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) launched a high-altitude balloon from Seròs, in the Catalan province of Lleida. On board was a very special payload: 21 drawings made by children being treated at Sant Joan de Déu Hospital in Barcelona. The balloon, which reached an altitude of over 25,000 m, was equipped with three cameras that took photographs of works created by the children, with the curve of the earth, the stars and the sun as a backdrop. Secondary school students in Seròs (in the county of Segrià) attended the launch, and the children and their families were able to follow the progress of the mission live at the hospital.

The mission was carried out using a latex balloon that carried three cameras, a transmitter (so it could be tracked) and a cylindrical structure containing the drawings made by the youngsters (aged 3-16). The aim was to entertain the hospitalised kids, lift their spirits and inspire them with a passion for space.

The project was set in motion by students at the Terrassa School of Industrial, Aerospace and Audiovisual Engineering (ESEIAAT) who are participants in the UPC Space Programme, which focuses on developing space-related scientific projects. Students of the UPC’s NanoSat Lab also contributed to the project, which was carried out in collaboration with Sant Joan de Déu Hospital.

Astronauts for a day
UPC students presented the young artists with diplomas to certify that their drawings had reached the stratosphere and mark their participation in this unique mission, which was very similar to those regularly carried out to check that devices, payloads and materials destined for space can withstand the conditions in this layer of the atmosphere.

The launch was live-streamed on NanoSat Lab’s YouTube channel using a technology for establishing satellite communication links developed by the UPC lab.

A special room—open only to participating children and their families—was set up at the hospital as a “mission control centre”. From there, participants counted down the launch and followed the balloon’s progress live. ESEIAAT students had also prepared a series of space-related activities for the children and teens who followed the mission at Sant Joan de Déu Hospital and in the town of Seròs.

banner dibuixos hospital sant joan de déu

Advanced technology that has won international recognition
The helium-filled latex balloon measures 1.5 m in diameter and carries a 30-cm³ module made of resilient materials. The module is attached to the balloon with carbon-fibre threads and equipped with advanced technology for performing experiments under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure. Both the technological components and the materials used were developed by UPC researchers.

Last year, using the same type of high-altitude balloon, some of the students behind the project won the “best photo” prize in the Global Space Balloon Challenge. The team, which competed under the name NESLAB, was up against over 400 rival teams from the best universities in the United States and around the world.

Technological challenges
The communications technology that made it possible to live-stream the mission is based on standard commercial components used for wireless communication (such as Wi-Fi). Thanks to the coding algorithms implemented by the UPC’s NanoSat Lab, the balloon can be used to transmit live images at a speed rarely achieved over long distances, and at a very low cost.

The three cameras that travelled in the module were “sports” models that use less energy than others with better features. The cameras are programmed by the students to take a picture every two seconds. At this rate, a total of 4000 images are captured during a two-hour flight. The cameras take pictures with a resolution of 16 megapixels and shoot 2K video at 60 fps—all at temperatures below -50°C and an altitude of over 25,000 m, more than twice as high as the usual cruising altitude of commercial aircraft.

The module carried by the balloon communicates using telemetry devices and a small driver that sends emails via satellite with information on the location of the balloon. The module is also equipped with a radio transmitter. The total weight is almost 4 kg, and a lot of care was put into selecting the materials that cover the equipment. “One of the greatest difficulties is protecting the electronic equipment from the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure,” said Marc Cortés, one of the members of the group.

Some of the telecommunication systems used with the balloon were designed by ESEIAAT students, and others by NanoSat Lab researchers. These systems made it possible to recover the module after the latex balloon burst and ensured that the team did not lose contact with the device—two things that are hard to achieve in launches of this type.

One of the most notable technical features of the balloon is its telemetry system. Conventional balloons use only radio systems to communicate. If the signal is lost, their trajectory and position must be monitored directly. “We incorporated three independent telemetry systems, each based on a different technology. One is bidirectional and uses the Iridium satellite constellation, which provides global coverage; the second is a radio system; and the third uses mobile phone text messaging,” said one of the students on the team. “We programmed and implemented the first two systems using microcontrollers based on the Arduino programming platform. But we did the software, wiring and checks ourselves, and the results have been phenomenal.” This technological know-how was developed by the students over five years, and they have made it freely available in open-access form.

The project was carried out within the framework of ESEIAAT’s INSPIRE programme, which was recently recognised by the Government of Catalonia as the “best teaching innovation initiative” and has also been recognised by the UPC’s Board of Trustees. The INSPIRE programme aims to encourage active learning by engaging students in real projects that they work on outside classroom hours.

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