To Infinity and Beyond: Our Near Space Balloon Launch

Since becoming a NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, I really wanted to do a Near Space Balloon Launch. This past week, our 8th graders did it! I’ve been getting a lot of questions wanting more information, so I decided I’d blog about it. I got a lot of help from Jeff Peterson and Curt Schleibaum on how to make this happen.

The Supplies

We ordered the 600 g Near Space Balloon Kit from High Altitude Science. It came with a flight computer (very similar to an arduino board), a Spot GPS unit, a GoPro mount (no camera), a 600 g balloon, the tether and tubing for to fill the helium, a parachute, and the wooden frame to be assembled for the payload. We had to buy a GoPro Hero, (we chose to order an older model from Amazon to save us about $250), a 32gb sim card (for the camera), a 16gb sim card (for the flight computer), and the helium (about $120). All told, we spent in the neighborhood of $1000 (not including the case of beer we bought the firemen that helped us retrieve it!).

The Process

First, we showed them Nat & Lo’s Project Loon video to get them excited about high altitude science. Then we Skyped with Matt Berry, an Operations Engineer with NASA working on the DC-8.

Next, we put the students into groups assigning each a different part of the project. One group spent their time assembling the payload, learning how to use the flight computer, setting the camera and GPS, tying the parachute, and making sure we were structurally ready to fly (and under 4 lbs per FAA rules). I added an Astronaut Lego Minifigure that we affectionately named Marty McFly!

Marty McFly
Marty McFly and GPS in background. Our school is just to the left of the flag.

Another group was responsible for understanding the necessary weather conditions needed to launch, including wind speed and cloud coverage, and then reading the weather forecast to determine our optimal launch dates.

One group was in charge of researching all the requirements to launch. They determined our distance to the Indianapolis International Airport, as we are near a decent path and had some concerns about that. They also read charts and maps to determine our launch location in aeronautical terms and also determined our predicted landing location using this tool. They then had to file a NOTAM (Notice to Air Men) with the FAA so we could launch on the day we selected.

And, the final group researched the helium requirements and called helium suppliers to find us the best price and service. On the day of the launch, this group was responsible for filling the balloon and securing it to the payload properly.

Filling the Balloon
Filling the Balloon

The First Launch

“First launch,” you ask? Well, one knot wasn’t secured properly on the line from the balloon to the payload. Therefore, once we got the balloon filled and untethered, it launched successfully. However, the payload wasn’t connected and thus we lost the balloon because we had no way of tracking it. The kids were very disappointed at first. However, we quickly reconvened and discussed our options. When they found out a new balloon could be ordered for $55, the students offered to buy it with their own money. The school paid for a new balloon and we ordered it the same day.

Launch Attempt #1
Launch Attempt #1

The Second Launch

Launch 2.0 is what we began calling it. Once the new balloon arrived, we immediately filed a new NOTAM and began final prep for a new launch. This time is was a success. Balloon AND Payload launched together!

The Retrieval

The balloon flies to a certain altitude somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000 to 100,000 ft or more and then expands so much it bursts. The payload then returns to earth and the GPS tracker is used to locate it.

Ours tracked all the way to Jeffersonville, Ohio, some 160 miles away. We did lose communication with it for about 2 hours while it was above 60,000 ft. Other teachers have told me their payload was only out of communication for about 45 minutes.

The Flight Path
The Flight Path

Our Science Teacher drove the 2.5 hours to retrieve the payload and found it landed about 35 feet up in a tree. After talking with several people in the town trying to find someone with the equipment to help us, she had to leave without the payload, but did have a number to the local volunteer fire department.

It turned out that one of the firemen was also a Science teacher at the local school and he agreed to help us get it. After 4 days and 3 nights hanging in a tree, the payload was retrieved and brought back fully intact, Marty McFly and all!

The Recovered Payload!
The Recovered Payload!

We are still reviewing the flight computer data to determine how high it went and what wind speeds and temperatures it endured. I have placed the raw footage on YouTube (posted below). Our camera stopped recording after about an hour and half and the balloon had still not reached the bursting point. The battery still had some charge, so we aren’t sure why it stopped recording. We are speculating that it may have gotten too cold for the camera.

UPDATE: Our balloon reached an altitude of 104,598 ft!

The Future

Since this was our first launch, we kept the payload to its bare minimum as described in the High Altitude Science Manual. Next year, we plan to add more custom items to the payload. SparkFun has a lot of sensors and computer boards we can add to collect more data. We may add a second camera to capture a different perspectives or maybe even a 360 degree camera if we’re brave enough to risk losing it.

Marty McFly at around 70,000 ft.
Marty McFly at around 70,000 ft.

In the end, our students had a great time doing this and learned a lot in the process. We can’t wait for our next launch!

YouTube footage:

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