Drawing shows Orbital Labs’ concept of operations — from launch of the high-altitude balloon platform and capsule to recovery.
Image credit: Orbital Labs

A Sub-Orbital Launch and Recovery (SOLAR) System capsule is being pursued by California State, Fullerton engineers and computer researchers.

The team at the university’s Orbital Labs is focused on a high-altitude balloon and capsule that reaches 150,000 feet, or 28 miles high above Earth, to provide an affordable launch service.

Along with microgravity experiments, specialists at Orbital Labs are also delving into re-entry and recovery concepts using the SOLAR System platform.

Drawing depicts the internal structure of the Sub-Orbital Launch and Recovery (SOLAR) System capsule. The capsule, or Recovery for Avionics and Payload Retrieval vehicle, will host scientific experiments and other important subsystems to recover scientific payloads. Image credit: Orbital Labs

Payload retrieval vehicle

Since last August, the interdisciplinary team of about 20 students — made up of electrical, mechanical and computer engineering, computer science, business and communications majors — has been working on designing and building the SOLAR System.

The project includes building a prototype of a 25-pound capsule, about 3 feet wide, which will carry future microgravity experiments. The capsule, or Recovery for Avionics and Payload Retrieval vehicle, attaches to a helium-filled balloon — the size of a small sedan — and houses avionics hardware and recovery equipment for launches, according to a Cal State Fullerton statement.

Bench testing.
Image credit: Orbital Labs

Filling in a gap

The large balloon will lift the capsule to between 100,000 and 150,000 feet high, and then detach from the balloon for freefall toward terra firma. Following the freefall period the capsule will deploy a drogue and main chute, and then drift back to Earth for recovery and payload collection.

According to Orbital Labs, there remains a gap in affordable, rapid deployment, microgravity experiment platforms for smaller industries, research groups and universities.

Next steps

Next steps of this design, according to the university statement, include fabrication, assembly, system integration and rigorous testing before the first test flight of the prototype by the end of 2023.

After the inaugural mission, the students intend to gather data, publish their findings and decide the best types of scientific payloads to perform microgravity experiments using the high-altitude platform.

“Our students are developing a middle ground to short-term and long-term solutions for microgravity experiments, while also researching re-entry and recovery concepts using a high-altitude balloon platform,” explains Yoonsuk Choi, associate professor of computer engineering, the team’s faculty mentor.

Choi also is assisting in finding collaborations with local industry as well as corporate support for the project. This semester, Orbital Labs members will participate in industry tours and hold student-run workshops.

For more information on Orbital Labs, go to:


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