How I got started
Late in 2014 I was surfing in the internet and stumbled across some pictures of the curvature of the earth and our atmosphere. They were beautiful photos that had to be professionally taken with a satellite or a rocket... or so I thought. Reading on I was surprised to find out that it was taken by a small group of guys with a balloon and a regular point and shoot camera. I immediately wanted to be able to take that picture on my own. I spent about a month researching what I needed to do and what my goals were.
I had three primary goals:
1. Take a picture of the curvature of the earth.
2. Get kids interested in science by showing a fun side of it.
3. Perform realtime tracking of balloon using APRS.fi
And thus began the build of my first HAB, aptly named Virgin HABlantic.
Virgin HABlantic – First Flight
I started to acquire supplies and draft up my plan. I spent a lot of time reading about the different methods of building a payload box. My payload box was probably the easiest acquisition. I get a couple of shipments of insulin samples a month to my office and a few of the boxes were the perfect size.
After a month of studying like a nut, I took and passed the amateur HAM radio test. It turned out to be easier than I envisioned, and well worth it.
I purchased all my Canon cameras and GoPro on ebay. You can get cameras super cheap on ebay if you search around. I made the mistake of thinking all Canon cameras were hackable… I was wrong.
I spent countless hours getting the cameras just right. Standard point and shoot cameras cannot take pictures in intervals. Canon point and shoot cameras have amazing capability; but out of the box, we don’t have access to all of what they can do. That is where the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) came into play. Using their software, I was able to utilize a number of scripts to produce amazing pictures. This was by far the most overwhelming and time consuming process of getting this balloon in the air!!
After spending some time reading the Canon Hack Development Kit wiki, I settled on the Canon A3300IS as the best camera for the money. Unfortunately, for the first one I got, there wasn’t a hack for that firmware version!! Ugh! I was lucky that my next two cameras did have compatible firmware versions for a CHDK upload on the camera. It took a long time for me to figure out how to not only figure out what firmware I was running on each camera, but then how to get the hack uploaded to the camera. For me the easiest way was go with the “firmware update” version as opposed to the bootable SD card.
Now that I had that cameras officially hacked, I had to decide what script to use. The CHDK website has a number of different scripts or programs that you can use. While there did not seem to be any one perfect script, I did find “miser” -- this one worked best as it allowed interval pictures and it would turn off the LCD screen in between pics. There are a number of intervalometer scripts available; it is fun to play with them. I simply charged up a battery, and set up the script with parameters I wanted to test and pointed the camera at clock. I literally took over 10,000 pictures of my clock. Once I had the cameras tuned just right, it was time to fit them into the payload.
Getting the payload ready was relatively easy when compared to getting the cameras ready. The walls were too thick to just cut a lens port, so I used a soldering iron to melt some Styrofoam away and make an insert for the camera to fit perfectly into. I used thin strips of Velcro to hold the cameras and hot packs in place. The GoPro I mounted on the outside. It made it through the takeoff burst and about half way down in descent. The battery produces an incredible amount of heat, so keeping it outside the payload may have been an advantage as they can overheat and shut down. With very little to no air at high altitudes, you don’t lose as much heat due to lack of radiant loss without air. I did tie all my knots at home ahead of time so that I had minimal knot tying to do on launch day. I used figure 8 follow through knots for all my ropes.
The UK balloon prediction model was an easier interface to use and in the end was more accurate. But I used both the UK prediction as well as the University of Wyoming balloon prediction. With the payload flight ready, weighed and tested, the weather started to look promising for our launch date of May 3, 2015.
At the advice of other HAB enthusiasts, I did make a checklist for launch day. I cannot overstate the importance of a checklist. Because we were launching from Hazleton Municipal Airport, I did file a NOTAM with the FAA the week of the flight. I also notified the local air traffic control tower the week of the flight and 20 minutes before launch. They were very helpful and easy to talk to, even excited about the project. I had a great turnout for my first launch. A number of friends, HAM radio enthusiasts from our local HAM radio club, local television, as well as a teacher, Mr Robert Stetz, along with some students all showed up. It was quite helpful having people around to help in inflating the balloon, double checking the knots and providing radio support.
Balloon inflation was a breeze with the inflation device from High Altitude Sciences. Once the balloon was tied up and ready for launch I turned to my payload last prep. I did fire up the spot messenger and the GPS transponder at the same time... something I never tested at the same time. I pressed the button to send a signal from the Spot, but it wasn’t sending any messages. At least we weren’t receiving any. With a crowd of people waiting to launch, we made the brash decision to send it up. The GPS transponder was working fine, and sending messages perfectly. I figured that the SPOT would figure itself out and start working at some point… I was wrong.
Lift-off was a success and we watched it fly until it was out of sight. Using my iphone, I was able to use the APRS website to track the progress of the ascent. Most of our chase crew took a moment to run to Perkins for breakfast as we were preparing for a real hunt. The Danzeisens decided to head to the landing ground immediately. With every few minutes passing we were getting updates that it was getting higher and higher. The ascent rate was averaging about 1000 feet a minute. By 80,000 feet we realized we’d better head to where we thought it was going to land, outside of Nazareth, PA about 50 miles away. We were all elated when we got over 100,000 feet. We slowly climbed seeming straight up to 106,860 feet above the Blue Mountains. Then bang! She started dropping. It really dropped fast for first 10 minutes... seemed like 5000 feet a minute. It slowed down as we monitored it on APRS.fi. Unfortunately, my Spot messenger never sent one message… last message received from the gps transponder was at 3,271 feet right off of 248 west of Nazareth.
Kit Danzeisen and his son, Kittrick, were able to find the payload in a freshly plowed cornfield with relative ease while the rest of us got there about 30 minutes later. In the corn field we found our payload intact and we were all elated. When we got back to the car, we immediately opened up the payload and check out the camera pics. We were blown away by the pics that we got.
Post Flight Analysis
Basic stats: Max Speed was 56.39 MPH, reached at 30492 feet @ FN20CU
After Flight Report
We met all of our primary objectives. We got great pictures of the curvature of the earth. We were able to track the payload realtime and recover it with relative ease. Lastly, and most importantly, the kids had fun and hopefully we have got them a little more interested in science. We had a great turnout for the launch at the airport... at least 50 people showed up. The local newspaper had a nice article and local tv coverage was a plus. In the weeks after, some classrooms in the Hazleton Area School district showed a lot of interest in working on some payload design and started coming up with their own experiments.
Overall, the mission was a success with some minor hiccups along the way. The only major problem I encountered was the failure of the spot messenger to send any messages. While at Tom and Sandi Kislan’s Cinco de Mayo party I couldn’t let that failure go. Testing the spot again that day ( at the party) , it fired up just fine with same batteries and same settings; it was sending position reports every 10 minutes like it was supposed to. Then it hit me… I never tested the spot messenger and the 2M gps transponder working together. As soon as I fired up the 2M transponder and placed it with 6 inches of the spot, it stopped sending position reports. Apparently the near field Rf emanating from the 2M transponder broadcasting at 5 watts creates a lot of destructive interference.
News Coverage of First Launch
Supplies for First Launch
- 2 – Canon A330IS cameras with high capacity Li-ion batteries
- GoPro Hero 3+ black with water tight case and drying packets
- GoPro battery extender
- 2M GPS transmitter (Big Red Bee)
- Li-Ion AA batteries
- Spot Personal Tracker
- 1200g HAB Kaymont Balloon
- 200 cuF Helium tank
- 3 cm weather balloon inflator/regulator (High Altitude Sciences)
- Velcro strips
- Hot hands warming packets
- Latex gloves
- Rubber bands
- Duct tape
- 4’ Rocketman parachute
- Electrical tape
- Mylar blanket
- Assorted wood pieces, eyebolts, epoxy glue
List of links that were very helpful as well as parts suppliers
UK high altitude webpage that has a number of useful tools:
Landing prediction using the European model of upper air
Burst calculator – useful for deciding burst height, necessary neck lift
Builder of the 2M gps transmitter I used
Hands down the best balloons made. Easy ordering.
Downloads for hacking your Canon camera with great forum support, as well as an list of the hackable cameras.
Register your launch with HAB community, good links for other resources.
Where I got my balloon inflator/regulator easy to use. nice kit for “out of the box” HAB, but where is the fun in that?!!
Father and son HAB enthusiasts. Good resources and stories.
Anthracite repeat association website. Our local Ham radio club of which I am a member. Helpful group of people that helped aid in tracking and working out the radios.
Realtime tracking site for following your balloon or others.