Project Strato

About Project Strato

Project Strato┬áis the high altitude balloon division of MXL, with “Strato” being a shortened version of Stratosphere – the layer of the atmosphere that sits 20-50 km above sea level.

Project Strato includes both undergraduate and graduate level students from various engineering departments at the University of Michigan. Mission goals include exploration of the stratosphere, new technology demonstrations, and public outreach. Launches typically occur at the end of each semester and occasionally throughout summer.

The current efforts within Project Strato are SPEAR, the Steerable Payload Extraction and Autonomous Recovery Module, and participation in NEBP, the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project. More information for SPEAR and NEBP can be found below.

We are always open to hearing new ideas for the program!

A Project Strato balloon with payload covering the sun, on a lovely summer test flight.


Steerable Payload Extraction & Autonomous Recovery

When a balloon mission terminates, either through actuated termination or through a balloon rupture after enough time, payload is brought back with a recovery parachute. Descent with a parachute increases the likelihood that payload will survive the journey back from the stratosphere, but there is no guarantee of where it will land. The wind will often blow a balloon far away from launch, and will continue to do so for a parachute with payload.

SPEAR, or the Steerable Payload Extraction & Autonomous Recovery module, aims to mitigate this problem, by using a parafoil with servomotors to steer our payload to a specified landing location.

The Strato team is aiming to develop and improve technologies for payload delivery from high altitudes. Currently, the team has begun an initial effort to determine the scope of the problem and the main technological hurdles, with flight demonstrations being performed to assess complexity and technical capabilities.

On the left, you can see two images from a day of testing for Project Strato’s SPEAR mission.

In order to characterize the behavior of the mission’s parafoil, the team is running with the parafoil to inflate it and generate lift. Once it’s been propelled up, not unlike a kite, the team lets it fall – this is all done in an effort to characterize glide behavior, such as glide ratio given different wind speeds.

Since this launch is done to characterize the parafoil behavior, a dummy payload of equivalent mass to the actual payload is used.


Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project

The Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, or NEBP, is a NASA-enabled program, run and organized by Montana State University. Currently, the University of Michigan is one of over 55 institutions, from 38 different states, participating in NEBP for the 2023 and 2024 academic years.

Overall, the program functions as a way to teach a team of 6-15 students high-altitude ballooning, while also accomplishing a science mission. According the NEBP website, a main goal is to perform “data acquisition and analysis through scientific ballooning during the 10/14/2023 annular and 4/8/2024 total solar eclipses”, all while the program provides and facilitates “infrastructure, tools, and best practices to help participating institutions build collaborations that could continue far beyond the scope of [the NEBP] project”.

Currently, the Project Strato team is going through educational modules provided by NEBP, and will soon start assembling hardware provided by NEBP, continuing to do so throughout the summer and beginning of the next academic year. The goal will be to prepare for and have two launches during the 2023 annular eclipse and the 2024 total eclipse. There, the team will aim to take data that shows the impact of the moon’s shadow, and how its abrupt cooling of the atmosphere causes changes in pressure, creating gravity waves.

To read more about the 2023 annular eclipse, see here.

To read more about the 2024 total eclipse, see here.

Why Balloons?

All good space programs have a ballooning program as well. Balloon missions offer a way to test payload in a cheaper, quicker manner, as testing novel technology in space can at times be too risky given the significant investment required. A great example of a balloon mission from a thriving space program, comes in the form of NASA Goddard’s EXCLAIM mission, which uses a balloon to lift a far-infrared telescope to high altitudes to conduct star formation surveys using novel methods in a cheap an effective manner. This mission is more than likely cheaper, and takes less time to develop than other NASA Goddard space telescope missions – such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

MXL has had plenty of payload and parts delivered to orbit, and Project Strato has been integral to this. Project Strato has been a place to develop, not just payload, but also students. With missions being cheaper and quicker, students are given freedom to make Strato missions their own and fully learn how a vehicle is developed.

Join the Team!

If you are interested in being part of Project Strato, or want to learn more, please reach out to [email protected]. Feel free to also look through our other missions, or reach out through our contact page.