High-Altitude Balloon Project 2010

On Monday, June 7th 2010, we launched a weather balloon equipped with a camera and a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger to the edge of space. We spent months researching similar projects to determine which components to use, how much it would cost, and how to predict the flight path. You're always taking a risk when you tie a bunch of electronics to a balloon and send it to the stratosphere but we were very forunate that our primary tracking mechanism didn't malfunction or get smashed on impact. The time period between launch and recovery lasted about 5.5 hours. The following photos are a combination of those taken from the flight camera as well as my own photos documenting the launch and recovery.

Nathaniel and I would like to give a shout out to Warren Barlow for assisting in the launch and recovery, and to Ryan Bahm and Nigel Burnett for watching the SPOT page, updating us with coordinates, and giving us directions! This project would not have been a success without their help.

On our way to the Potholes Reservoir. Saw quite a few of these just east of Ellensburg. We chose this location because the predicted flight path would put it down in the middle of nowhere. Launching from anywhere else would bring us too close to a military base, airport, water, or Idaho. We got off to a late start this morning. We wanted to be at the launch site by 2:00 pm, but we were both up late the night before and had to stop at Fred Meyer for hot glue and hand warmers and Party Everything to pick up the helium.

Finally at the Potholes Reservoir. Time to finish gluing the boxes together and string everything up.

Laying out the payload boxes and stringing everything together. Nothing fancy; just $2.99 foam coolers from QFC.

This is the backup radio beacon. If the GPS fails to update its position, we could theoretically locate the payload by driving to the predicted landing site and sweeping the area with a directional antenna and scanner. The radio beacon transmits a short tone every three seconds. Unfortunatly, we had a rough launch that managed to knock two of the batteries out so the radio beacon was inoperable for the duration of the flight.

The SPOT Satellite Messenger. This device updates its location to the internet every 10 minutes via satellite. Although a bit expensive, we opted to use the SPOT instead of a cellular GPS location transmitter because cell service in eastern washington is a bit sparse when you leave the I-90 corridor. This is the page we watched to stay informed of the latest reported position of the payload.


Filling the 1000 gram weather balloon to approximately 5 feet in diameter. We predict the balloon should rise to about 100,000 feet. At that altitude, it should expand to about 25 feet in diameter and burst.

We spent the next couple hours driving east, roughly following the trajectory of the balloon being updated to the internet. The updates went silent after 6:54 PM so we figured the payload had landed upside down (preventing the SPOT from making a good satellite connection) so we found the closest road to that reported position and hiked into the wheat fields.

Ground-zero. No sign of the payload.

Getting dark.. gotta find it soon

I had just enough EDGE service on my iPhone to check the SPOT page one more time. New update as of 3 minutes ago! We walked to the top of a hill and called a friend back home to confirm and give us the coordinates (since Safari on iPhone makes it difficult to do certain things on an interactive gmap.) As Nathaniel was on the phone, we received another update from the same position as the previous. It has landed!

We speculate that the updates had gone silent for an hour because the balloon exceeded the GPS's maxiumum altitude. Most GPS devices stop working at an altitude of 60,000 feet so terrorists can't build a guided missile with one.

Back to the car so we can drive for another hour through primitive farm roads to get us as close as possible to the landing zone. By the time we got there, it was almost 10:00 pm and pitch black so we don't have many pictures of the recovery. To reach ground-zero, we had to wade up and down two hills through chest-high wheat that was wet with condensation. At 10:08, we found the payload, shredded balloon, and parachute just a few feet west of the reported coordinates. Perfect. We ran back to the car, transfered the SD card from the camera to my laptop, and imported the pictures with Lightroom.

Getting close to ground-zero.

Photos from the flight camera

The Flight Path

Yellow - Where we drove
Red - Path of balloon
Blue - Predicted path of balloon