Pradeep Shinde MS ’09, Ph.D ’16 has a company that could change the entire space travel industry.
Right now, there is only one proven way of transporting astronauts, satellites and cargo through Earth’s atmosphere: rocketry. Through his company, SpaceLoon (Space Balloon Technologies), Shinde is exploring an option he thinks can revolutionize communication, meteorology and space travel itself.
“We have very minimal access to space. The main reason for that is it is very expensive to reach,” Shinde says.
It would be much less expensive to use a balloon, says Shinde, and he is not alone in thinking that. For centuries, people have experimented with sending balloons to explore the air and space above. Yet winds and changing air pressure make it difficult.
The highest recorded altitude of a balloon was set in 2013 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency when an unmanned balloon reached 53 kilometers. Shinde is trying to build one that can fly higher.
If successful, Shinde’s technology would be lucrative in numerous ways. The upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere would become more available to scientists. Rockets are limited in how much data they can record because they move so quickly. These high-flying balloons could unlock new clues regarding climate, weather and natural phenomena like auroras.
It’s even possible that the balloons could make some satellites obsolete. Modern electronics are powerful, but these seven-to-ten nanometer processors are thin and and get damaged in a very short time in outer space conditions, says Professor Ibrahim Tansel, an expert on microelectronics at the College of Engineering and Computing. Older technologies with hardened electronics are used for satellites because of their durability. Almost all commercial satellites operate until they die without having their electronics changed.
“In Europe, there is a lot of research to use the balloons instead of satellites,” Tansel says. "They want them to go as high possible. That way, they will be able to manage the communications in a large area. State of the art electronic circuits may be used for balloons and zeppelins, and they may be regularly replaced."
Tansel was Shinde's teacher once at the university. Although he is not officially part of the company, the FIU professor has been sending students to intern with Shinde for years. Last year, Tansel was the primary investigator of NASA-sponsored research between FIU and SpaceLoon.
“We’re trying to help him as much as we can. It’s our job. If our students want us to help them, whether they are officially a student or an alumni, we always try to help them,” Tansel says.
So how does Shinde intend to succeed where other engineers have failed?
Most try to make their balloons as light as possible by reducing the thickness of its material, Shinde says. These balloons stretch out as they rise due to a decrease in surrounding pressure.
“The Japanese one, the thinness of the material is 2.8 micron. The thinness of our hair is approximately 100 micron,” Shinde says.
Shinde is taking a different approach. He says he is trying to ‘manage material properties’ instead of ‘lowering the material weight.’ Just how this is being done is kept secret for now, although he claims to have done three successful tests of his balloon in the first few kilometers of the atmosphere.
He says he has a proof of concept for a balloon that consistently and reliably reaches higher into the stratosphere, which is up to approximately 50 km (about 31 miles) above sea level, than conventional stratospheric high-altitude balloons.
"[The goal now] is to build it and to make people aware of it, then people will begin getting involved. Then the momentum will start,” Shinde says.
If successful, Shinde estimates his technology could decrease the cost of carrying cargo to outer space by as much as two-thirds.
"The vision for the company right now is to make space accessible for all," Shinde says.