Ask Hackaday: Help NASA With Their High Altitude Problem

image of hackaday logo on box at high altitude

Unless you’ve been living under a high voltage transformer, you’ve probably heard that NASA has grounded the Space Shuttle fleet. This makes getting stuff to and from the International Space Station slightly more difficult. With the growing need to get small experiments back to the surface quickly and safely, NASA is researching an idea they call Small Payload Quick Return, or SPQR (pdf warning). Basically, they toss the experiment out of the window, use drag to slow it down, and then use a High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) self guiding parafoil to steer the thing down to a predefined location on the surface.

Now, what we’re interested in is the self guided parafoil part, as it takes place in known hacker territory – around 100,000 feet. This is the altitude where most high altitude balloon experiments take place. NASA is throwing a bunch of money and brainpower to research this part of the system, but they’re having problems. Lots of problems.

Stick around after the break and see if you can help, and maybe pick up some ideas on how to steer your next High Altitude Balloon project back to the launch pad.

diagram of spqr program

Want to get on NASA’s radar? Send up a HAB payload to the Stratosphere and return it to a specific GPS address in one piece. Post it on and keep your phone handy. Because they are having a lot of trouble doing this, and would surely be interested in your tech.

So the basic idea is:

  1. Deploy para foil
  2. Get GPS lock.
  3. Use a microcontroller to move some servos and steer the Near Space Craft to a specified GPS address.
  4. Corkscrew down to the surface.
  5. Profit!

Pulling this off is not as easy as it sounds, and NASA is finding this out the hard way. The AMES Research Center has delegated the HAHO part of the SPQR project to a handful of select universities. They have done several studies and experiments, most of which have ended in complete failure. (All links are pdf)

image of a failed HAB systemTo summarize just a few of the problems –

  • There is a tendency for the system to develop a flat spin, where the payload and para foil ‘orbit’ each other at a high speed, proving to be unrecoverable.
  • The para foil will not inflate because of the low air density.
  • The lines get tangled easily.

Be sure to check out some of the studies and let us know your thoughts. NASA just might be listening. How would you solve these difficult problems?

97 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Help NASA With Their High Altitude Problem

    1. I’m really not sure why i posted that, it was just the first thing that came to mind and it seems like smart university students would be able to come up with an auto-gyro system that origamis nicely.

      1. Dear NASA: you need to look at a maple seed and those pop-up enclosures for kid play. If you combine the springy material with a large fin in the same shape as the maple seed, then you will have a chute-equivalent device that opens reliably every time.

        In order to provide directional control, use accelerometers and thrusters.

        1. This is a really great suggestion. Make the payload canister round, and have a spring-loaded membrane wing pop out one side. Or, the leading edge could be a carbon fibre rod that was bent around the circumference of the canister. Onboard gyros could dynamlcally twist the membrane like an aileron during each revolution to guide it to its landing spot. Instead of one large payload, a stack of canisters could occupy the same space.

  1. Put the package in an rc plane. Drag ‘chute to slow the package down to a sensible speed, then release the’ chute and glide the package down to earth (in a working scale model of the Space Shuttle for extra points).

      1. Couldn’t they just use a couple of thin, weak carbon fiber rods? They’d only need to survive being packaged, then un-bend to spread the chute out enough to catch the wind properly. Put them on the back of the chute, and who cares if they snap when the chute inflates? or design it so they get pushed out of their holders and fall to earth as it inflates.

          1. That was my first thought. Put a long intertube around the perimeter of the chute. On deployment, inflate and the chute should stay open. Don’t know how to fix the flat spin problem though.

      2. The Air Force already solved this problem with the Corona Project in the 60s. The Thor Rocket put a satellite into space, then the satellite would take pictures and dropped the film back to Earth. A parachute would deploy and a plane would pluck the package out of the air. Funny that NASA tried doing it again 40 years later completely unaware of the Corona Project’s existence and they couldn’t even get it work.

  2. I’d go for autorotation in the first braking stage – a small propeller at the end of a small boom , and leave the whole parafoil stuff at home .
    just go for an inflatable wing profile , filled up by the wind (direction controlled by the first stage) – so , build an inflatable bird shaped structure without tangle , flatspin etc . just a rutan vari-eze model airplane .

      1. I would counter that since the military only receives ~4% of the budget in a given year, that the real money pit is all the social program benefits paid out (e.g. disability, welfare, college grants to people who are gaming the system, etc.). My family got welfare while I was growing up, so I do have a very good idea how/where that all is spent btw.

        FWIW though, I think NASA should get at least half as much as the military does in funding (if they could make a damn long term plan that didn’t change with the president).

  3. Would be nice if the payload could have some sort of aerofoil to help it stabilized upon reentry (you know, make it look like an aircraft?), but I doubt they’ll consider it since payloads sent to space keeps strict proportions. Another way is to have a special parachute that won’t open if the payload is not falling vertically (what?) The parachute would have a ring, of some sort, around the chords to keep the parachute half open to stabilize it first, and not fully apply drag (this is good since the parachute will act like the tail of a kite at this point). The ring would slide down if the payload is positioned vertically (this then causes the parachute to open fully, and that the payload is vertical this would prevent the “death-roll-spin-whatever”.) Measure the speed, if it’s slow enough release the parachute then deploy the parafoil.

  4. for 3; allow the chute to rotate freely, attach the ropes to a rotating platform so the wires have less probability of twisting around each other.

    for 2. The chute might have to be mechanically opened enough so that it can inflate, perhaps have thrusters on the edges of the chute or a spring loaded system(like an umbrella?)

    1. I’m most unsure about this one. The payload may have to be heavy, the chute specially designed for high altitudes, or designed to still provide drag even in a flat spin.

  5. There might be a way to shape the payload itself so during the initial fall it’s movement and surrounding air flow could be used to power its electrical system.

    For navigation once the package is low enough, lock the rotating platform and make some of the lines shorter or longer, perhaps through a pully system.

  6. A big difference between this problem and the one of returning a package from a weather balloon is that something coming back from low earth orbit starts with a huge velocity, around 17,000 mph. That’s a whole lot of kinetic energy which must be dissipated, and it’s hard to avoid having a significant fraction of that energy end up as heat in the reentry vehicle. A parachute will likely burn up at those speeds.

    I wish I had a simple and elegant solution, but at the moment all I can say is that I appreciate the problem.

  7. Toss it “out the window” nearly over your point of landing.

    Inflate balloon from side of unit at closer to 100,000 feet until it is around the altitude you can stabilize and guide a normal craft.

    Disconnect baloon, extend “normal craft” appendages.

    Glide to target via. GPS guidance.

    Unless I’m missing something (likely), it seems that bringing it down the same way that we send things up to that altitude would probably be the most reliable way.

  8. Collapsing parachute is the easy one. Use a sealed rib structure and a common CO2 cartridge to inflate it. With that it’d likely only need five lines. One to each corner and one to the center.

    Once a low enough altitude is reached, cut that loose and pop out a regular ramwing parafoil.

    Or just replace the first with an inflatable Rogallo hang glider style wing. If NASA had done that with the Gemini program they’d already have the technology for this.

    Heck, there is soooo much space tech that’s been experimented with then tucked away on a shelf or in a closet, it would meet some current need, yet instead of going digging through the past for something already done they keep attempting to re-invent.

    One item that should have been in use for many years is a beam/truss builder. It used rolls of sheet metal which were folded to form the three edges. A fourth roll was spiraled around at an angle and either riveted or spot welded to the corners. It made a very compact way to package a very long and stiff truss, “extrudable” to any length up to the length of the rolls of metal. I know it was tested on the ground, dunno if any flight tests of any sort were ever done.

    This should be SOP for NASA, “We want to do X. Let’s first look ‘in the closet’ to see if someone else already did it or at least did something that will do part of X.”

      1. Nope. Wish I did. IIRC it was in Popular Science or Popular Mechanics sometime in the late 70’s to early 80’s. The forming concept very much resembles how seamless metal gutters and siding are formed.

        1. I recall something similar from the ’60s. Imagine a watch spring made of 8″ of flat spring steel. Now, instead of the metal being 1/18″ wide, make it 16.5′ wide. Now unwind the spring completely, then start rolling it up perpendicular to the direction it wants to roll, until you end up with a coil 8″ wide and 4″(?) thick. Now, as you unroll it, it will automatically curl around itself, eventually making a tube up to 16′ long. (You can see how it works for yourself for the cost of a soda straw slit lengthwise.) The example given in the PS/PM mag was a *very* tall antenna that could be set up anywhere by a single person.

          (You are welcome to use this idea for the arms of a delta-arm 3D printer, if you send me one. :grin: )

  9. “There is a tendency for the system to develop a flat spin, where the payload and para foil ‘orbit’ each other at a high speed, proving to be unrecoverable.”

    -deploy a parachute to increase drag on the package.

    “The para foil will not inflate because of the low air density.”

    -create a “parafoil” baloon-esq wing that self inflates with nitrogen

    “The lines get tangled easily.”

    -use steel cables…

    …..done…..wheres my prize.

  10. Charge up the parafoil and its lines with a tone of static electricity. All the parts will repel each other, providing force to help keep the foil inflated as well as resisting any lines tangling.

    It may not work at all, I’m not an expert on any of it. But i have seen Van De Graaf generators make people’s hair stand up.

  11. I wonder if Spaceship One’s method of solving the high-altitude low-velocity stability problem would scale down to a smaller sized payload? Really, I just want to hear a NASA guy say “Deploying feathers.”

  12. Reading the studies, it appears most of their problems with chute deployment is that they had little to no initial velocity before opening the chute. It appears that the chute and payload were lifted in a deployed state and then released from the balloon. I can’t help but think that had they packaged the chute and allowed the payload to gain some velocity before deploying that they would have had better success.

    1. Pretty much my first thought as well, but more the Asterix-style comical SPQR standard, embedded in the ground, with cracks radiating from it. After seeing that university’s logo on the PDF it doesn’t surprise me they came up with that acronym.

  13. Use 2 inflatable foils as the blades of the auto rotating payload.
    Use the centrifugal force from the spin to extend and inflate the foil.

    Its already spinning as it falls… might as well use that spin for something, true NASA style.

  14. The first link is a University of Idaho poster talks about an anomaly in the ascent rate of a balloon possibly due to an unexpected increase in drag. It might be relevant to parachute dynamics, but I didn’t think it was all that interesting to the descent problem.

    The next three papers are from the same Master’s program student who had success with a semi-rigid airfoil. It looks like it’s not as stuck in development hell as HaD makes it seem.
    But maybe NASA is looking for some alternatives, perhaps there is a way to progressively deploy the parachute in a way that generates drag but avoids drag until the chute can inflate. Perhaps tension sensors on each of the chute’s lines could help with that. Perhaps the lines could be run through some sort of breakaway device that prevents them from tangling on each other.
    Maybe going the total overkill route and controlling the tension on each line might prevent the deployment problems.
    Or maybe other readers have it right an something other than an inflatable airfoil should be used.
    From the links here, it only looks like one guy is really working ont he problem. But Google might be able to tell me otherwise.

    1. ” perhaps there is a way to progressively deploy the parachute in a way that generates drag but avoids drag until the chute can inflate.”

      You can read my comment on that above.

      1. Ah. I think I saw someplace that talked about a system to keep a parachute from fully opening when it was at high speed but my google-fu is not strong enough to find the info.
        I think one major difference is that the info I recall seeing was for a round canopy, not for an inflatable airfoil. But I could be mistaken.

        Either way, this sounds like a problem that has been explored to some degree before. Perhaps the hacker ethos comes in to play with taking one of these successful ideas and making them with simpler, cheaper tech.

  15. Here’s what I would try:
    The first stage of the recovery systems consists of three rolls of ribbon located at the back end of the payload capsule that can be slowly extended out the rear of the payload capsule. Each roll can be rolled and unrolled at a controlled rate. A small amount of each ribbon trails the capsule when it is ejected from orbit.
    The second stage of the recovery system consists of a high altitude parachute.
    The third stage of the recovery systems consists of two glider wings that can be unfolded from the side of the capsule to form a glider (Delta wings), a tail and standard glider Remote controls.
    The landing process:
    Wait to eject the payload until the expected point of high atmospheric entry is approximately above the desired landing location.
    As the payload capsule enters the atmosphere, slowly release ribbon from each roll as needed to keep the payload capsule over the desired landing location.
    Monitor speed and braking force for each ribbon. If braking force suddenly drops (assumption is the ribbon broke), roll out more ribbon until the capsule is again braking and again going toward the desired landing location.
    Continue until payload speed is below safe parachute deployment speed.
    Release Ribbons, deploy parachute.
    Continue until payload speed is below safe glider deployment speed.
    Release parachute, deploy glider. Fly home.

  16. a passive ballute system would be great to stabilize in the upper atmosphere, one that doesn’t require pressurized gasses to fill, once stabilized and to a lower altitude the parafoil comes out. rather simple deployment and control. I had designed one for sugar shot to space, and built it, but never got a response. Maybe NASA will respond.

  17. I would like to point out the biggest difference between a re-entry vehicle and the so-called edge-of-space flights made by many hobbyists: 17,000 MPH. That’s how fast an ORBITAL vehicle is going when it starts to hit atmosphere. The challenges include dissipating the energy to bring this down to zero, without incinerating the payload. Once you’re down to a reasonable speed, the rest is already well-explored territory in the hobby.

    I’ve seen video on the re-entry of STS solid rocket boosters (which are at sub-orbital speed when they separate), and they use three-stage drogue chutes. That is, the chutes open in three steps, with the first step being a small area, and the other two steps approximately doubling the parachute area each time. Maybe an approach like this would help. Or maybe they’re already doing that.

  18. Hah, that’s easy. Forget a standard air ram based parafoil, use an LEI kite (Leading Edge Inflatable). Those of us who kiteboard are already familiar with them and their ability to keep shape in less than ideal conditions.

    The basics of the idea is that you have an inflatable superstructure comprised of inflatable bladders (usually a leading edge and a few ribs). This forms the frame that holds your fabric tight. We need such setups so that we can go ride on the water and not get dragged to Davy Jones’ locker when our kites splash down. The bladders allow the airfoil to have a defined profile with minimal use of fabric and low weight.

    They generate great lift and my small kite with 6m^2 of surface area is more than enough to haul my fat but into the air. With an LEI kite NASA could have longer flight distances and higher resistance to inclimate weather conditions.

    Most LEI kites today have linked bladders so you only need to directly fill one bladder to fill the entire kite. Also many use one way valves so if you get a leak in a bladder the others hold pressure.

    So my solution is, replace the standard parafoil with an LEI kite, include a compressed gas to inflate the kite along with a system to add more gas as the kite descends into the lower atmosphere, voila steerable kite that doesn’t collapse.

    1. ^ BTW you would still need to use the existing methods for slowing down from orbital speeds. My suggested solution is to deal with the atmospheric problems and collapsing airfoils.

  19. Before satellites taking pics wern.t there so called ” birds” which would take pictures with cameras then they would shoot a payload with film back down to earth?so isn’t,t this the same thing?

  20. No need to get all complicated. We’ve been doing this since Project Gemini.

    First, you make the re-entry vehicle with an offset center of gravity so the guidance system can steer it during re-entry. This allowed Apollo spacecraft to land within a few miles of their recovery ships even without steerable parachutes.

    Second, if you have trouble with the parafoil above 100,000 feet, the solution is simple: DON’T DEPLOY THE PARAFOIL ABOVE 100,000 FEET! Wait until the air is dense enough to make it work. If you need to decelerate, use a small drogue chute. Again, that’s how Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft were recovered, and that’s how SpaceX does it today.

    Another model from history: the early reconnaissance satellites, known variously as “Discoverer” and “Keyhole.” To get their pictures to Earth they automatically loaded the reels of film into a re-entry capsule and kicked it out the door. A couple of parachutes later, it was snagged in mid-air by a C-123 cargo plane with a special rig hanging out the back. Seems to me that’s almost exactly the idea behind the SPQR capsules.

    I’m not an engineer, of course, so I don’t have the math to work out the details. There may be reasons why this won’t work. It seems logical, though. Why re-invent the wheel? Or an other rotary device for that matter?

    1. The history of the Corona satellites used from 1959 through 1972. Keyhole, after the designation prefix KH, wasn’t used until 1962, then the previous Corona versions were retroactively named KH-1 through KH4. The last decade of the program saw KH-4a and KH-4b revisions.

      An executive order by President Clinton declassified the program and all its imagery, though that was largely symbolic since a disassembled satellite had been on public display for several years and at least one magazine in the 1970’s ran an article on how the automated film processing and cameras worked.

  21. OK, this just seems silly on NASA’s part. Why all the extra complexity? Just aim the thing so it lands somewhere in White Sands via a normal drogue and main chute arrangement. Drive out with a 4 wheeler and pick it up where it lands. Simple, cheap, and the tech’s already there. If you get with 20 miles of where you aim, your still good.

  22. Slightly off base, but:
    Don’t deploy the parasail until the vehicle is in “real” air pressure – like 50-60K feet. Just use a ballistic-deploy drogue to for stability.

    – Look at how the ASROC torpedo deploys, and just add a streamer drogue to the process.

  23. Why even use guidance? They know where they drop it, so they could at least estimate a landing area. Make it come in fast and open the parachute late to minimzie atmospheric influence, have a chopper on standby, then use a GPS-Transmitter to locate and recover it! They already did this during the Apollo project, so what is the problem?

    1. The problem is: you want to safely deliver a mail package from orbital station to whichever exact coordinates on the surface, to a party that doesn’t need to have a chopper on standby.

      Pizza pie out of the blue sky, baked in micro-gravity oven, still hot! Then you could deliver it globally, to anyone within range of cellular base station, or having a satellite phone.

      That feature, if sought by many, may become a new drive for space industry – businesses sending up in LEO large robotic warehouses and robotic shops, parcel delivery companies putting their expedition centers there, … perhaps there is even no need for permanent presence if you don’t serve the whole globe, you just strap all your delivery containers to a high altitude balloon and launch it.

      1. You could just bake your pizza during re-entry.
        Launch your payload with a frozen pizza out the airlock. The pizza cooks during reentry. Whoever finds the payload gets to eat the pizza if they put the payload in the mail using the postage paid envelope. Solution delivered.

  24. sooo basically its like cruising along with 100mph on the highway dropping an egg out the window and hoping it wont break and land on the tiny red spot on the pavement yeah sounds real easy….

  25. so once NASA is allowed to create a self guided high altitude whatever, does that mean, that FAA regulation will be lifted from the rest of us? So we can launch a high altitude whatever and have it return to our backyard instead of chasing it down where ever it may land?

  26. My idea:
    Use an ionocraft or WEAV in reverse to slow down the payload AND steer it.
    Atmospheric re-entry is not a problem with carbon fibre electrodes deployed by spring and clockwork at 100K feet and it should then slow down enough for the regular helicopter system to kick in @ 2K feet.

    Also worth mentioning, use a little itty bitty He or Ar canister to allow it to generate meaningful thrust at above 50K feet for steering and deceleration.

  27. I can do this for less for them for less then 200 dollars per unit(Parts made in china :P).
    As a bonus it would target a ground target from space.
    Simply use a octocopter without any motors ;)
    Instead of going up it would be going down.

  28. I was thinking of a combination of two techniques :
    -first having a few small air brakes, should give the load a spin. This spin can be used for slowing down, aiming the target and helping the deploy of the chute with the centrifuge force.
    -the second technique, is using a small gas tank to blow a balloon to help the chute to deploy. At that altitude, the gas expends rapidly, and usually causes high altitude balloon to explode.

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