It has been several months now since we launched our little Benny the cycling astronaut into space. You can see that video here… The whole process was really exciting, fun to work on, and turned into a very memorable adventure. There is a whole sense of exhilaration in the buildup to the launch, anxiousness to see if your little creation can make it to space and back(and that you can find it once it does), and then the exhilaration of actually finding your ‘ship’ that has been outside our atmosphere. It is something that would be fun for anyone to do themselves working on a science project or just an exciting activity to do with their kids.
As simple as it seemed, I encountered several few hiccups and was slightly more complicated that I originally thought. What we didn’t talk that much about is how we actually pulled this off, as it was a bit more intricate than just strapping a couple happy birthday helium balloons from the grocery store to your GoPro and letting that baby fly fly away. With all of our searching the web, there was no ‘Dummies Guide to Launching a Weather Balloon Into Space’ so as a bit of a public service and a bit of behind the scenes we decided to describe how to do this yourself using our own experience to create our own ‘Dummies’ guide. First we’ll start with the basics and everything that you physically need to launch this as a checklist, how to build it, and then go through the actual process of how to launch it.
As far as the basic materials that you actually need to send your balloon to space:
• Capsule or something to put everything in
• GPS unit - to find it once it returns to earth
• External battery(optional)
• Zip ties
Once I decided to begin this undertaking, I spent a good amount of time researching the web on how to actually do this (without breaking the bank) and while I found a lot of information, I didn’t have a very clear picture on how to set up my whole ‘spaceship’. So I took what I wanted from several designs to make it work for me which you can do yourself from my design. Hopefully I can provide a clear description of what I did that you can use as a guide or at least take a few tips that you can implement into your own launch.
The capsule and inside stuff
First off is your actual capsule. Of course you really can send any kind or sized capsule you want into space, but whatever you decide has its own pros and cons. You are going to want something durable enough to withstand winds, cold, re-entry, and landing. The heavier the capsule, the slower the ascent rate will be or the more helium you will need to actually have enough lift to send it to space. The flimsier the capsule, the greater your risk of breaking up or not being able to withstand the elements. So my criteria was to have something large enough to fit everything inside but not too big, very light, had good insulation, and was cheap. What I decided on was this Styrofoam cooler from Amazon
It was small, light, and allowed me to use an x-acto knife to easily cut out a perfect hole to secure the camera to face the outside. Plus it came with two of them, just in case the first one didn’t work out(which it didn’t…and I’ll get to later).
Now you have the capsule but what do you put in there? First, one of the reasons you send a balloon into space is to actually see your balloon from space, so you need a camera. I used the most basic GoPro out there as I didn’t want to be out several hundred dollars if I never saw this thing again, I’d just be out just A hundred. I wanted to capture as much of the flight as possible so got the biggest MicroSD card that I could, which was 32 GB. The lowest edition of the GoPro doesn’t allow 64 GB cards(go figure) AND you want to make sure to get the highest quality card you can, at least a class 10. If your card isn’t good enough quality, it can cause the camera to not record or capture spotty video, which would be pretty darn disappointing if you go through all this successfully, only to find your camera didn’t actually record anything. Since your ‘ship’ is going into space, it gets awfully cold up there… One thing that batteries and electronics hate is…the cold. The stratosphere, which is most likely the part of the atmosphere that your balloon will go to, is around 26.6°F, which isn’t deathly cold but cold enough to shorten your battery life not just of the camera but the GPS device as well. Because of that temperature, I threw in a few of those handwarmers that people typically use for skiing. In addition to that, I wanted to make sure that my camera covered the whole flight from launch, to balloon bursting, to crash landing… I had a vague sense of how long this was going to be but didn’t know if it was going to be an hour or 6 hours. To be safe, I added a cheap external battery that I plugged into the camera to make sure it had enough juice. I duct taped everything down that I could on the inside but wanted to add some insulation to keep things from rattling around inside as well as to limit the space that the hand warmers had to actually heat. This is where I made my first small mistake that you can learn from… I took those aircell pockets that come in Amazon packages for insulation and just put those in there. If I had thought about it a little, the reason the balloon comes back to earth is because the balloon pops. As it ascends the atmosphere gets thinner and thinner, which causes the helium in the balloon to expand until it can’t anymore and poof. Well, that goes for the same thing with those AIRcell things. It didn’t take them very long to pop themselves and do absolutely nothing. I could actually hear the things pop in the video, so just make sure to use something other than what I did, paper, foam, whatever just not air filled sacs.
In order to see the video you get from your camera, you have to actually recover your camera. Now this is where you really want to learn from my mistake and don’t go cheap… When looking at the wide gamut of GPS devices out there, there is quite the range of cheap to really expensive units to choose from. I chose to buy a used child’s GPS watch. Once I got the watch I tested it and it appeared to update its location every 30 minutes consistently enough where it seemed like it would work. Short story…it didn’t. I actually sent two balloons into space and I’ll get into those details later but am guessing that this watch used cell towers to find its location, NOT satellites. That is definitely one thing to consider if you plan on using a cell phone to locate your balloon later and if there will be phone coverage wherever it may land. Where I sent the balloon was fairly remote and had limited cell coverage. I learned my lesson and the second time I did this, I got a quality GPS device called the Spot Gen 3. Each one had an app where you can track the device location and seeing the difference in the two products in retrospect was like night and day. The Spot was extremely accurate, consistent, and easy to use. I was actually able have the device update its location every 5 minutes(which does use more battery) but was very cool to see its flight path and was surprisingly nearly identical to the projected flight path(I’ll get into that later too). And last but not least, you will want to include a note in there… I included a message with all my details and an offer of a reward if someone found it, in case the ship mysteriously turned into a Malaysian airliner…
The outside stuff
There are four components to this whole getup. You need the balloon - attached to the parachute - attached to the capsule - attached to the radar reflector. One small benefit to starting an apparel business is that I now know my way around a sewing machine...barely. So instead of buying a parachute I just went to the fabric store, picked up some cheap rip-stop nylon, and whipped up a homemade parachute that was about 8’ wide. Then I just had to trust that my handiwork was going to actually work re-entering the atmosphere from 80k feet. Small risk especially with my sewing skills…
I used the paracord to attach both the parachute and the radar reflector to the capsule with about 6’ length on either end. I purposefully attached the parachute to each of the four corners of the cooler instead of one point of contact to prevent it from turning the video into a spinning nausea-fest. The radar reflector is required to make sure other airlines out there can actually ‘see’ it appear on their radar so you don’t take down an airliner. I got an aluminum wire paint tray from the hardware store and used that as the device to attach all these things to it. I also had glued our Benny the biking astronaut onto a piece of a yard stick and attached that to the wire paint tray as well.
Last up is the helium and balloon. First I found a helium rental company in Denver that rented out 55, 120, and 220 cubic ft. tanks. Doing a little investigative work and using a bit of physics I patched together from high school, I figured I needed about 80 cubic feet of helium to lift my ~5 lb. package to the edge of space so got the 120 cubic foot tank. Now your regular foil balloon from the store isn’t going to cut it for that much helium. You’re going to have to get yourself a commercial latex weather balloon made specifically for the job at hand. I found this guy was perfect for the job…not too big, not too small, just right. It bursts at 12’ and I figured I would fill it with gas to about 7’ width(about 80 cubic feet of helium), which would allow it to get to a pretty good altitude before going kaput.
The preparation and actual launch
You’ve bought all of your supplies and got your whole setup figured out…now you just have to figure out how to launch your contraption. First question, is where you want to launch your balloon from? The launch site legally needs to be far enough away from any major airports(30 miles) AND ideally you want your rig to land somewhere where it isn’t too hard to get to or even too populated of a space if you can. How in the world do I figure that out??? Well, someone did all the hard work for you and created this nifty tool to create a projection of your flight path. You simply put in the launch site, time, date, and a few other details and viola it creates a flight path for you. What I’ve found(now that I’ve done this twice) is that it is very accurate AND your flight path can vary drastically from one day to the next based on the weather. The first time I launched it flew over 100 miles due East and the 2nd time(from the exact same launch spot) it flew only about 30 miles Southeast, both of which the calculator predicted correctly. It was so accurate you can see the projected and actual flight path of the second launch below to give you a sense of what you can expect.
So the morning of, you will want to enter everything into this tool one more time to double check and make sure everything is looking good. Once you’ve got your launch site figured out, now it’s time to make sure you do this legally… First off, you will need to be at least 30 miles away from any major commercial airport. Next you will need to call the Prescott Automated Flight Service Station(AFSS) 72 to 24 hours prior to launch and file a Notice to Airmen(NOTAM). Be prepared to give them all the details of your launch(that you’re launching an unmanned weather balloon, date, time, location, anticipated height, and duration of your flight). Last you will make one more call 30 minutes prior to launch to confirm with them that you’re launching. Luckily for you(and me) someone took the time to create a cheat sheet for you with all the proper phone numbers and formalities here that saved me a boat load of time. Thank you diligent person on the internet…
Now that you’re legally covered and ready to launch your balloon, the moment has come to let that baby fly. A couple of tips here. 1) Put down a tarp or some kind of blanket to protect the balloon. It is a heavy latex but still fairly fragile and can get popped or damaged if it touches down with the elements. The sight and sound of your balloon deflating before it has even left the ground will definitely be deflating… 2) Put together everything else ahead of time and attach the balloon last. A seven foot wide balloon isn’t the easiest thing to cope with and is just easiest to deal with if you make it the last piece of the puzzle. 3) Zip ties are your friend… I got this tip from the guy at the helium company. Once your balloon is all filled up and you’re ready to tie it up, it is very simple, no knots needed. Keep holding the bottom of the balloon, spin the balloon several times, and then use a zip tie to cinch the top of the neck of the balloon. Next take your take the looped cord that is attached to your parachute, slide that loop through the remaining neck of the balloon, fold the neck over on itself, and use another zip tie to cinch the neck of the balloon so it holds the parachute. Easy as that… No gas leakage, no knots, and an easy secure way to attach everything to your balloon.
You, my friend, are ready for flight. Make sure your camera is turned on, your GPS is working, look into the sky to double check there are no jetliners flying near you, and start your countdown. You’ve done all the work to prepare for this, now it’s time to let physics take over. Release that baby and watch it drift off into the sunset…or something like that.
They say that, ‘If you love a balloon, let it go, for if it returns, they were always yours. If they don’t they never were.’(OK, a slightly made up quote) but they obviously don’t know what they’re talking about because your balloon is definitely 100% going to be returning to earth; there’s no beating gravity… It’s more a case of if you are going to find your beloved balloon. There are a lot of factors that determine this, but a rough calculation to figure out a general flight time is that your balloon will ascend around 5 meters a second, pop around 80k feet, and hopefully return to earth around 5 meters a second as well and not come back as a scorching ball of fire. Assuming nothing goes wrong, with those numbers you can expect your flight time to be around two and a half hours, give or take a half hour on each side. Not too bad to fly to space and back. Once your balloon is all grown up and off on its lonesome, there’s not much you can do now. You can start heading the direction of the projected landing area if you want or you can go celebrate your successful launch with a milkshake. With the Spot GPS, I was able to watch every 5 minutes a new pin pop up on the map showing the balloon’s current location, until it left the atmosphere, and went radio silent. Then it is just a waiting game…waiting for the GPS pin to reappear and start moving again until it finally stays in one place. Touchdown!
You just hope it doesn’t start moving again, which means that either a cow has commandeered your craft or someone else absconded with it. I knew my balloon was going to land somewhere in the vast farmland of America in Eastern Colorado, just no idea how far from a road. Fortunately, Benny the astronaut piloted it back to within a quarter mile of a dirt road which made it very easy to recover. It was a beautiful sight to see the parachute on the ground flapping in the wind. That is something I never saw the first time around which now leads me to that story…
Houston, we have a problem… How NOT to send a weather balloon into space
Like I said earlier, I did this twice, with the first time relying on a kids GPS watch. Once we launched the balloon, the GPS gave us two signals on the way up…then nothing for an hour and a half. We went and hiked Red Rocks, back outside Denver, then finally there was one lone signal sent, 100 miles due east of where we launched it in the middle of nowhere. The balloon had practically flown its way to Kansas. We were pretty excited and decided to go find it even though it was probably going to be dark by the time we got there. Armed with our headlamps and one GPS coordinate, we went hiking into the darkness to the last known signal and nothing… We scoured the whole area for a good hour looking for this thing. I even made part of the parachute reflective(I do have a company that makes reflective stuff…) just for a situation like this, but no luck.
We drove back home with the dogs pretty dejected. I decided to make the trek back out there by myself the following morning in the daylight, looked ALL over the place again unsuccessfully for two hours, and left notes with the farmers that weren’t home in the area in case they stumbled upon it. I knew this balloon launch was a risk to lose everything and was pretty upset that it didn’t work out. I even reached out to the maker of the watch to see if they had any additional information about the location that I didn’t know of, again without any luck. Benny #1 was a goner and I’d accepted the fact that I’d probably never see him or the footage ever again…
I’m guessing that the watch sent out that last signal as it connected with a cell tower on its way down and continued to drift East onto who knows where. At this point I was very determined to make Benny’s mission a success and repeated the whole process again two weeks later… fruitfully this time with the much better GPS and Benny #2. Nearly four months have passed since we launched that fateful mission and just last week, I received a call from a farmer in Eastern Colorado who said that they found our original ‘spaceship’! Apparently farmers don’t really go out in their fields to farm in the winter, who would have guessed that… So he just had gone out to do some work for the season and came across our little Styrofoam cooler with a parachute attached to it and was very confused by what it was. Benny #1 was even still attached(Benny #2 did not make the fateful trip home)! Thankfully for the farmer and the reward, we have now recovered both of our ships and the original Mr. Benny the astronaut. Hopefully my experience with sending two of these things up now will give you a little bit of help(at least in what not to do) in sending your own ship into space. God speed weather balloons…
Total Flight Time – 2:56:23
Distance Traveled – 103.49 miles
Total Ascent Time – 2:09:30 (12 ft/sec)
Total Descent Time – 46:53 (33 ft/sec) – I guess my parachute the 1st time wasn’t as good as the 2nd…
Estimated maximum height – 93,240 ft
Total Flight Time – 2:13:44
Distance Traveled – 27.39 miles
Total Ascent Time – 1:10:03 (18 ft/sec)
Total Descent Time – 1:03:41 (21 ft/sec)
Estimated maximum height – 82,962 ft
Benny's successful 'second' trip into space...