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Hardware Hacking Science

DIY High-Altitude Ballooning 176

Posted by timothy
from the creative-photography dept.
The Ape With No Name writes "Ever wanted to see the black of space but just can't pay a cool 20 million to do so? Well, just build your own small-scale, high-altitude balloon like these guys out of styrofoam, duct tape, electrical kit and a 'consumer-grade' weather balloon. They reached an estimated 52000 feet, had all kinds of tech issues, including hacking code to fly the mission minutes before launch. Cool pics and video were taken throughout the mission. Next flight is in approximately 2 weeks with 100,000 feet the goal."
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DIY High-Altitude Ballooning

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  • Movie Mirrors (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:37PM (#12547947)
    Mirror for videos: Launch & Prep [ninwa.net] - Just Launch [ninwa.net] - Recovery [ninwa.net]

    I ask that you please do not stream them. Thanks!
  • Exciting but risky (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fembots (753724) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:38PM (#12547949) Homepage
    It's almost as exciting as reading how NASA got Apollo13 back, but the fact that the payload just dropped back to earth "randomly" is quite alarming.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      There really isn't all that much control over where a payload parachuting from 100K feet goes: it's at the mercy of the winds. Need proof? Check out where all these guys' payloads landed:

      http://balloons.space.edu/habp/ [space.edu]
    • Not that risky (Score:4, Interesting)

      by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:54PM (#12548126) Homepage Journal
      "earth "randomly" is quite alarming."
      Not really.
      1 The earth is mostly empty land.
      2. It will have a parachute so it should do no damage with it hits.
      3. Even if the parachute fail odds are pretty good that unless it hits someone on the head it will not hurt anyone.
      4. Noaa and the USAF have been doing the exact same thing for years and no one has been hurt yet.
      • Actually, they fly a helicopter over and catch the falling parachute and bring it down, so technically there is no manner in which anyone could be 'hit on the head' since the object rarely ever touched the ground. These returns were too valuable to allow to crash uncontrolled to the surface- their point of return was very carefully mapped and controlled.

        http://spacecovers.com/articles/article_corona2.h t m [spacecovers.com]
        • The USAF typically does not normally do bucket captures unless the payload absolutely requires it. It is too costly and dangerous (especially costly).

          The normal landing (on soil, at least) is done by strapping on a bunch of corragated cardboard to the bottom of the payload and letting the cardboard take most of the landing abuse when it comes down on parachute.

          Because they have a good idea on what the wind direction vs altitude profile is, even these parachute landings get put down pretty near where t

      • 1 The earth is mostly empty land.

        Most of the land is empty, yes, but overwhelmingly the earth is empty water. Without any planning what-so-ever, you'd likely end up in an ocean, which woudlnt' hurt anyone.
        --
        Don't fight Firefox! Let FireFox fight YOU! [bobpaul.org]
        • The sea is mostly empty water: true
          The Earth is mostly empty water: true
          The earth is mostly empty land: true
          The Earth is mostly empty land: false

          THIS, children, is why we MUST pay attention to capitalization.
      • 1 The earth is mostly empty land.

        I heard the earth was mostly water.
    • This guy who did a similar project:

      http://vpizza.org/~jmeehan/balloon/ [vpizza.org]

      was very careful to follow the regulations. Not sure if the UT guys knew what they were doing in that regards. Basically, you do not necessarily need FAA permission if the balloon is small enough, just so one does not end with one's payload smashing through an airplane windscreen or blowing up a turbine. To quote above link, one generally doesn't need to file a flight plan unless the balloon:

      (i) Carries a payload package that weighs
    • Every day, across the world, thousands of weather balloons are released at the same time. (Or so Trevor, the weather guy at Cobar weather station in outback NSW, told me.) The balloons carry a commercially-made telemetry package that doesn't weigh much, and drops to the ground when the ballooon bursts at around 100K feet. I haven't heard of anything bad happening as a result. The planet is a big place, and the chances of hitting someone on the head are extremely low. (And even lower than that in the Cobar d
  • Cheaper (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:38PM (#12547954)
    Ever wanted to see the black of space but just can't pay a cool 20 million to do so? Well, just build your own small-scale, high-altitude balloon like these guys out of styrofoam, duct tape, electrical kit

    or alternatively, stick two pieces of aforementioned duct tape over your eyelids and experience the black of space right here at home.
  • DUHH!!! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:39PM (#12547972)
    >Ever wanted to see the black of space
    >but just can't pay a cool 20 million to do so?

    Yeah - just wait for the sunset.
  • This sounds like fun. I saw an article about something similar in Scientific American a few years ago, but this is the first time I've heard of flight code being changed so close to the wire.

    >As anyone who works with modern electronics knows, hardware is only half the equation
    • Lucky (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Tiger4 (840741)
      " but this is the first time I've heard of flight code being changed so close to the wire"

      There is a good reason for that.

      I realize /.er are the miracle-working exception, but the vast majority of us don't write flawless code. We don't write it well or fast while under pressure and running on lack of sleep, without testing, for a critcal payload, after a last minute change in hardware and performance requirements. That might be considered "high risk" so typically we try to avoid doing it.

      I am very happ
    • This sounds like fun. I saw an article about something similar in Scientific American a few years ago, but this is the first time I've heard of flight code being changed so close to the wire.

      The code they had was not really "flight" code - the code did not control flight in any way - it was just a sealed baloon that went up and popped. The code was just controlling when to turn GPS / radio and camera on and off. In the end they wrote code to run it for 2 hours, then turn it off. Not exactly the most compl

  • Oh well. I guess I'll have to wait.
    • No photos here, but the article is about as good:

      The UX-1 Story
      by Mike Coffey (KJ4Z) and Dan Bowen (K2VOL)

      Dan (K2VOL) and I originally decided we wanted to launch a balloon in the Spring of 2003. We had seen a few articles about hams launching balloons, visited a few websites about their adventures, and thought it sounded like something we'd like to get into. We made plans, did some research, and then life intervened. A year went by without any further real action. In the Fall of 2003, I acquired several
  • by Prophetic_Truth (822032) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:40PM (#12547980)
    no...wait a second...that's some nerd's weather baloon..Regardless, alert the FAA!
  • Another Cool Page... (Score:5, Informative)

    by th1ckasabr1ck (752151) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:40PM (#12547982)
    Here's a cool webpage [bordelon.net] of a group that did something similar. Their baloon made it up to about 94,000 ft. The site has a cool writeup with pictures and such of their project.
    • by joranbelar (567325) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:55PM (#12548137) Homepage
      You know, this may seem totally random, but what I appreciate about this post is the fact that he provides an interesting and relevant link to a similar story without resorting to self-righteous babbling about how it's all been done before and Slashdot is so behind the times, and how stupid we all are for not knowing about the previous stories. I've been getting tired of those posts :) Sometimes, it's just about getting the information out, not about who did it first.
      • without resorting to self-righteous babbling about how it's all been done before and Slashdot is so behind the times, and how stupid we all are for not knowing about the previous stories.

        He's got you for that.
  • by Humorously_Inept (777630) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:41PM (#12547986) Homepage
    The twenty million's not to see the black of space but to actually go there, or close enough to it anyway. I can see space from my back yard without a weather balloon. For free.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:42PM (#12547996)
    Blips on Google Maps [googlesightseeing.com]
  • by nizo (81281) * on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:43PM (#12548013) Homepage Journal
    If they want to test their balloons with a live person, maybe they can send this guy [snopes.com]; I am sure for a few beers he would happily go up.
  • already slashdotted? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nietsch (112711) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:46PM (#12548038) Homepage Journal
    Since I can not RTFA, ican only speculate it will be much more fun that these guys, that lofted a package on a weathe balloon too, but let it return to the launchsite by using a glider. They got a few flifghts out of it until it presumably crashed into a mountainside. [members.shaw.ca]

    If these guys are going for 100.000 feet, they will need a very big accesible area to recover their instrument package. given that winds up high may be a stong as 100 km/h, that leaves a pretty big oval your package could drop in.
    • it appeared on mirrordot:

      The UX-1 Story

      by Mike Coffey (KJ4Z) and Dan Bowen (K2VOL)

      Dan (K2VOL) and I originally decided we wanted to launch a balloon in the Spring of 2003. We had seen a few articles about hams launching balloons, visited a few websites about their adventures, and thought it sounded like something we'd like to get into. We made plans, did some research, and then life intervened. A year went by without any further real action. In the Fall of 2003, I acquired several Dakota Digital camera
    • 100 feet isn't very high. And why so many significant figures? Were the measuring devices that accurate??
      • in Europe, instead of numbers being written xxx,yyy,zzz.ddd, they're written xxx.yyy.zzz,ddd which, honestly, I find to be a bit more clear, if different from how us Americans usually write.
  • Darwin Awards! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by zoloto (586738) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:49PM (#12548063)
    Although he was just an honorable mention, lawnchair Larry was funny. Here's what he did:

    http://darwinawards.com/stupid/stupid1998-11.html [darwinawards.com]
    • Actually, flying cluster balloons is a popular sport and you don't need an air gun to pop them - you just haul the line of a balloon in by hand and deflate it.

      Some Googling will quickly find nice pictures of cluster balloons and yes, they do use lawn chairs...
    • Apparently, it's one of the most amazing things [clusterballoon.org] it's possible to do. It's already on my life's to-do list, and that's only after seeing the video [clusterballoon.org].

      Still, it's not exactly a popular sport. At only half a dozen pilots worldwide, cluster ballooning remains something between an extreme sport and a personal eccentricity!

  • The black of space is amazing, but it is great to see that you can do this with a few items that people can find at most stores. Yeah the Helium is pretty expensive, but definately a lot of fun... Especially if you inhale a lot Great site, got slashdotted next time make a torrent of the site :) -A321..
  • by TripMaster Monkey (862126) * on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:51PM (#12548080)


    Ever wanted to see the black of space but just can't pay a cool 20 million to do so?

    I could beat you over the head with a pipe until you think that's what happened...
  • The sites down, but I'm very impressed that they are going to 100,000 feet and managing to create a safe experience for whoever is going up using styrofoam and duck tape!

    This compares very well with spending $20 million if true (somehow I doubt the writeup).

    I'm assuming that this is more then just taking pictures in space (as I can look up thousands of them already). The $20 million referenced as a comparable is for an actual flight into space, and in fact is actually an orbital flight.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Still very cool. http://vpizza.org/~jmeehan/balloon/ [vpizza.org]
  • by badzilla (50355) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {lw3kartlu}> on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:51PM (#12548095)
    Well we bought this balloon and we figured how neat it would be to launch it up! Shame we lost the instructions for putting the helium in but no problem cause we bought an air-bed at Wal-Mart and used those instructions instead mkay? Then we stayed up all night writing kewl software and and GPS tracking plan but then just before launch we noticed the batts were kerflooey so hey we threw away the computer and fixed up an old PCB from a transistor radio which looked quite a lot like it could have been just the right thing. Balloon came down somewhere and we couldn't find it right away but eventuaqlly we stumbled on it and look at these neat pix!
  • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:52PM (#12548104)
    Other that the whole issue of where it comes down (say, in the front yard of that reactor in the background, completely freaking out the security people), doesn't this sort of thing pose a hazard to commercial aviation? Like, say, jet engine ingestion, that sort of thing? I know the odds of an intersection are slim, but I seem to recall that the high altitude model rocket folks have to get some clearances and permission, and all that sort of thing. Just curious what the drill is. No doubt some balloon enthusiasts will chime in - but 52k feet means you're passing through (twice!) many, many common through-flight altitudes.

    Full credit on the geek factor, but if this had gone wrong somehow or been perceived as an inbound Scary Payload coming down in the wrong place, it would make the idiots that get busted pointing mid-power lasers at aircraft cockpits look like they're not the only guys not thinking the whole thing through...
    • by unicorn (8060)
      That if a baloon, or a styrofoam box happens to get in the way of a jet engine, the mechanics wont' have a clue unless the pilot tells them.

      You've got a piece of metal, designed to pull air in at 600miles an hour, heat it up, and eject it back out. Latex is not even worth worrying about.
      • I figured that since birds [birdstrike.org] can take down large aircraft, other low-mass, chunky things can too. Really unlinkely, though, certainly.
        • Can take down aircraft, but generally don't. Planes are designed to resist bird strikes, because they aren't all that uncommon. A bird-strike taking down an aircraft is the exception, not the rule.
          • I've seen documentaries about the development of an airplane turbine. They threw frozen turkies at the thing. It sliced them into pieces, no problems.
      • Though what if the baloon itself were to drap and stay over the windshield of the cockpit...as far as I know, you can do just about anything but land on instruments alone.

        I guess it could be done using ILS approach, but you better be DEAD on the money coming in. Or has aviation changed quite a bit since the days of barnstorming?
        • Depends - older airliners and small planes would definately have a problem, though I'd be surprised if they couldn't shake the balloon with some (extreme) manouvers. Newer airliners are capable of a Class C Instrument approach (uses DGPS) - they can touch down and brake (but not taxi) on instruments alone. So after they landed someone would have to come out and pull the balloon off the windshield.
    • by screwballicus (313964) on Monday May 16, 2005 @06:36PM (#12548547)
      This site [members.shaw.ca] discusses the hazards involved on this page [members.shaw.ca].

      The excerpt of their short answer on the main page is as follows:

      Is there any danger to aviation?

      The short answer is no; there is very little risk to larger aircraft. According to an MIT study, the risk of a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle such as this being hit by a jetliner is on the order of 1 in 1 billion per UAV flight hour. The risk to light aircraft, in a relatively busy area such as the Fraser Valley, is higher, but can be made easily below the risk light aircraft pose to each other. For the long answer, please read further.
    • that reactor in the background

      You mean those cooling towers in the background... :)
      • You mean those cooling towers in the background... :)

        OK, reactor complex. Where there are cooling towers, there's a reactor. Still, sending odd-looking flying contraptions, sprouting antenna, into the air anywhere near one... it's seems like you're asking for a little scrutiny, don't you think?
  • Cool, but... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RexRhino (769423) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:53PM (#12548112)
    I was disapointed that this was not a manned balloon.

    I always thought that a high-altitude balloon ride to 100,000 feet would be a lot of fun. With the whole low pressure thing, being able to see the curvature of the earth, seeing a black sky, it would be the closest that a normal person can hope to get into space. And this is completly do-able to make it within the budget of the average person from North America, Western Europe, etc. Yes a few people have done manned balloon rides to those heights, but they have always been super-funded. Never normal people doing a hobby project.
    • you relize that in order to do that, you have to effectivle make a space capsule, right?
    • Getting to a high altitude (over 35,000 feet) in a manned balloon would not be a trivial undertaking. Or else lots of people would be doing it already.

      - You have to choose between popping the baloon at altitude and parachuting back, or taking a huge amount of ballast to keep you from plummeting back to earth once your balloon envelope begins to shrink alarmingly on the way back down. If you don't drop ballast, you will die.

      - Above 55,000 feet or so you need a full-fledged pressurized space suit. If your s
      • On the question of buoyancy at 100,000 ft, I don't think a dirigible would be sufficient owing to the mass of the structure. Remember, the air's thinner so you must have a much larger balloon at 1e5 ft compared to 6kft. OTOH, perhaps some kind of hybrid, semirigid design would be possible...
      • There was a (fairly awesome) BBC documentary I saw about this -- highest parachute record, is from a balloon, as you say. Yes, the guy was wearing a spacesuit and probably broke the sound barrier.

        Now that sounds awesome and everything but what I'd really like to do is parachute from the ISS (or other tourist-space-station). Not possible now, sure, but can the physics geeks tell us if it'll be possible in our lifetime? Or do those kinds of speeds make it impossible to slow down fast enough? How about some ki

        • the trouble with returning from orbit is you have to dump your lateral velocity

          theres no easy way round this. The normal way spacecraft do it is to use atnospheric friction but this needs a MASSIVE heat shield.

          retro rockets would be another option but i can't see this being practical in anything suit like either. (they don't use it for spacecraft because it would mean sending up so much extra fuel)
    • And the Darwin Award goes to.....
    • Have you any idea how big a balloon which can carry 200kg+ (you, your comms, your pressure suit, your oxygen, your parachute) to 100,000 feet would be? You'd have to have it made for a start, people don't put payloads that size up on high-altitude balloons very often, so it's not an off-the-shelf item like weather baloons (which are around 100th the size you'd need to lift a human and the kit to keep them alive).
    • Here's his website [legrandsaut.org] - he's been planning this for a few years now and the schedule is set for this month.

      I remember reading about one of the previous jumpers and he said that without any wind (no air), there was no sensation of falling for the first few minutes -- it was just like floating.
  • This is not news...

    In the days before duct tape, we were getting at LEAST that high from smoking cellophane and vinyl!
  • by og_sh0x (520297) on Monday May 16, 2005 @05:55PM (#12548136) Homepage
    Aha! This is just what I need to conduct my clandestine terrorist operations! I mean, forget model rockets! Those were so last month!
  • "Ever wanted to see the black of space but just can't pay a cool 20 million to do so? "

    ok, this is about building something to go to an extremely high altitude. The pictures are secondary.
    I mean if they just want pictures of space, NASA has lots.
  • the "Icarus" project? ;-P
  • by purduephotog (218304) <.hirsch. .at. .inorbit.com.> on Monday May 16, 2005 @06:04PM (#12548209) Homepage Journal
    I scoured past articles for this.. but could not find it. There was reference to the steps a guy had to go thru to get FAA approval for launching a balloon- contacting the airport controller, etc, and no one had any clue how to do it.

    I saw no mention of permits (before slashdotting) of this sort of information being obtained.... which has me rather worried.

    Yes, the odds of coming in contact with a commercial jet at altitudes between 11,000 and 29,000 is probably very small, and and yes it was only a small payload (talk about scaring the shit out of a pilot seeing it up there), but I'd still feel rather safer knowing that the FAA was alerted to a possible flight hazard on a lane- perhaps it should have had a simple radar reflector to show its location?

    Wish I could have seen the photos, but I was too busy reading.
    • by tigeba (208671) on Monday May 16, 2005 @06:23PM (#12548401)
      The FAA permits these types of launches provided they meet certain criteria.

      http://www.eoss.org/pubs/faaball.htm [eoss.org]

      Basically, total weight needs to be under 12 pounds. Most people try to keep it under 4-5. The FAA would like you to file in advance and inform them when you launch.
    • I scoured past articles for this.. but could not find it. There was reference to the steps a guy had to go thru to get FAA approval for launching a balloon- contacting the airport controller, etc, and no one had any clue how to do it.

      IIRC, from my days as an air traffic controller, the US Gov't has laid claim to all airspace between 18,000 feet and FL600 (about 60,000 feet) as "positive control airspace" (PCA). I believe parent is correct. These individuals face some hefty civil fines if they didn't ge

    • Here's a start.

      Contact your local Flight Standards District Office [faa.gov] for a Special Flight Permit [faa.gov].

      Do not expect this process to be simple or fast. It will involve a lot of red tape and it will take a while (probably a few weeks unless you're EXTREMELY well-prepared for the fone call). However, it's better than having to explain to the FBI, local police, and FAA why you decided to launch a large balloon to a ridiculous altitude without their permission or knowledge.

      p
  • Shameless plug (Score:3, Informative)

    by Rorschach1 (174480) on Monday May 16, 2005 @06:21PM (#12548379) Homepage
    I sell a ham radio APRS tracking kit [n1vg.net] that's been used in quite a few of these balloons (though not by this particular group, to my knowledge) for GPS tracking and telemetry. My device has built-in temperature and voltage sensors, and can switch configurations (and trigger external devices like a cut-down) based on altitude, temperature, voltage, speed, and so forth.

    My standard deal is 20% off for balloons and other educational uses. I also donate freebies from time to time for good causes.

    Oh, and of course, it's all Open Source. BSD license. And the firmware's recently been rehosted on SourceForge [sourceforge.net].

  • You gotta admire these guys. I mean, starting from scratch and really doing a great job with the equipment (nevermind that their GPS would not register altitudes higher than 9999 meters -- one would probably need a specialized product for that, at a much greater cost), it was pretty well planned.

    Some of the posts have talked about what would happen if a jet sucked the thing in, but as a balloon gets higher and higher, it also gets REALLY REALLY big and much easier to see. If "sucked in", it's more likely

    • There's a story about the military pilot calling for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running "a bit peaked." Air Traffic Control told the fighter jock that he was number two behind a B-52 that had one engine shut down.

      "Ah," the pilot remarked, "the dreaded seven-engine approach."

  • by Senor_Programmer (876714) on Monday May 16, 2005 @07:05PM (#12548841)
    Back before they instituted minimum cabin pressure requirements for commercial airliners I flew LA-Sydney in a 747SP at 45,000 feet(cabin altitide 10,000 feet). Let me tell you, it's pretty cool. In the middle of the day, the sky is dark and the horizing had a LOT of curve to it. Thank you Pan Am

    So, if you can do the balloon thing, GO FOR IT!
  • hopefully extreme DIY like this will become a more and more open possibility. materials keep getting better, and hopefully costs will continue to fall. with integrated design, manufacturers should be able to simply host a file with their machines spec's, allowing amateurs to sort out for themselves what they need built.

    PCB manufacturing is a pretty remarkable case study. there are some extremely low cost pcb manufacturers who will run any very small batches of PCB's. this has driven down costs across th
    • Entirely coincidentally, IFTF's Future Now had a post not but an hour ago on Gershenfeld's FAB, a book about personal fabrication technologies and how computers are enabling their new revolution. This is the exact revolution I'm talking about; the power to build what you dream of.

      Future Now post [iftf.org]
      FAB [amazon.com]
  • by Jicksta (760596)
    How feasible is it to, in some way, initiate and maintain a wireless TCP/IP connection to a weather balloon at this height?

    I know omnidirectional wireless technologies like 802.11 work only a few hundred feet max without tremendous signal boosting, but what about a more focused, directional approach? Could it somehow really reach nine miles up? What about a sattelite intermediary to create a the connection like airplanes use? Granted, that would need some pretty fancy tracking software.

    Also, how long coul
  • I note they were getting altitude from the GPS, and had some trouble with it. The way we usually do it is grab a cheap absolute pressure sensor, like from Sensym. Atmo pressure is roughly exponential with a scale height of about 7 km, so an estimate of your altitude is -7 km x ln(pressure / 1 atm). Better yet, get two, one with a 1 atm full-scale and a second with something like 0.01 atm full-scale to give better accuracy when you're way up there.
  • With UFO sighting in decline, I think one should be able to make something more high-tech than crop circles.

    Metallized kevlar high altitude baloons were probably responsible for most UFO sightings. Airforce used lot of them from late 40s to analyse radioisotope falout from Soviet nukes. Close to sunset, metalized baloons make for realy impresive sightings.

  • A non-profit called Edge of Space Sciences [eoss.org] has been doing this locally for over a decade.

    They actually have great video of lots of flights, they have their payloads nailed down to designs that work and are practical, and they've been involved with helping University students all over the U.S. fly payloads for their aerospace engineering students.

    Almost every major city has a high-altitude ballooning club similar to EOSS already.

    This isn't news.

    Reading about a bunch of guys strugging through dumb stuff t

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