Project: Edge of Space

On January 7, 2012 I set to come as close to possible to the edge of space and capture it all in HD. It required an entire month of research and planning.The purpose of this blog is to motivate others to take part in similar science related extracurricular projects and to explain my methods to anyone who might be interested in replicating this particular project. I’m hoping that others will build of some of my ideas and learn from my mistakes so that they could have a more successful launch than mine. More so, I simply hope to inspire creativity, curiosity, and innovation in others; regardless of age or resources.

My project launched a 1.7 lbs payload attached to 1200g gram weather balloon which was filled with helium. The payload contained an HD camera and a cell phone which acted as my GPS transmitter. The idea is that the balloon would rise to a max altitude of near 100,000 feet and then burst due to the drastic decrease in atmospheric pressure. This decrease in pressure would allow the helium inside the balloon to expand until it reached its 30 feet burst diameter. In order for for my project to be successful, my payload and balloon would have survive -60 C degree temperatures, 100+ mph upper atmosphere winds, and significantly diminished atmospheric pressure. It would have to ascend to at least 80,000 feet and upon falling, it would need to automatically deploy a parachute. My payload would then have to descend at a rate that would not completely destroy the electronics inside. If all that worked out, I then could only hope that my payload not land on top of a tree, building, house, telephone post, in a dead zone area, in water, or on a street/highway.

The entire project was to cost me under $200 and all my supplies were purchased either on Amazon or at Home Depot.

Specs:

Launch Date: 1/7/12

Launch Time: 18:00:00 UTC (12pm Central)

Launch Point: 41.695475, -89.088135

Landing Time: 19:15:00 UTC (1:15 pm Central)

Landing Point: 41.601580, -87.710123

Distance Traveled: 70.7 miles

Payload Mass: 1.7 lbs

Balloon: 1200g Project Aether 30 ft. Diameter Balloon

Helium Volume: ~120 Cubic Feet

Peak Altitude: ~80,000 feet

Camera: GoPro Hero HD (ideal due to its light weight, small size, and extreme temperature resistance)

GPS: LG Optimus-T Android with Instamapper

Parachute: 24″ Nylon Rip Stop

Cost: $198 (Including everything except gas money)

Materials:

Styrofoam cooler, HD Camera, Camera Skeleton Housing, Smart phone, Fiberglass, Duct tape, Hot Glue Gun, Aluminum Foil, Parachute, Weather Balloon, Helium, Wire Cutters, Zip Ties, LED Beacon Light, Nylon String, Foam Piping Insulation, Hand Warmers, PVC Elbow, 6 ft Tube, Scissors, Screw Driver

Design/Setup:

For my box, I decided to use a 8x6x6 (inch) styrofoam cooler. I measured the lens diameter of my camera and cut out a circular hole in front of the box. The font side of the camera was hot glued against the wall of the styrofoam box. A small hole/opening was made through the lid of the box as well as he bottom of it. I ran the nylon string through these openings. At the bottom of the box, I made a large knot with the string to prevent it from sliding back through. I also wrapped the knot with duct tape and with foil, making a medium sized ball of foil at the bottom of the box. The idea was that this would act as a radar reflector in case any planes flew nearby. The entire bottom of the box was layered with fiberglass. I placed my phone on top of the fiberglass and put one hand warmer in between the phone and camera (too many hand warmers will over heat and fry the electronics). More fiberglass was added until it filled the entire box.

To attach my payload to the balloon I created a support system for the string to prevent excessive spinning or rocking during the ascent. To do this, I covered the exposed string with foam tubing. I then wrapped the tube with duct tape for even more support. I also duct taped the end of the tube to the box. The parachute would be attached to the  top of the tube as well. This would be done in a way that would eliminate any possibility of it dragging during ascent but that would easily deploy itself upon descent. The LED light was duct taped to the bottom of the box (just in case I needed to look for it at night). Along the sides of the box I wrote down a phone number to call just in case anyone were to find it before me.

The balloon was tied off with both zip ties and string. I tied the balloon on top of the neck of the balloon and then again 4 inches lower. The payload was attached to the middle of the the two knots. I also added duct tape for extra assurance. Once everything was attached and ready to go, I turned on the camera and quickly sealed the box using heavy duty 36″ zip ties and my package was ready for launch. I found zip ties to be indispensable for my project as they are extremely durable, strong, and aren’t affected by temperature or weather.

The parachute chosen was slightly smaller in size than recommended for a payload of my weght. I did this intentionally as I wanted quick descent to prevent any unneeded/excessive drifting. I calculated that a 24″ parachute should slow down my payload enough to prevent any significant damage on impact but would still descent at a steady speed. I also figured the styrofoam box, the ball of foil, and insulation would cushion any impact so I was not too worried about this. It is worth noting though that although my parachute would deploy automatically upon falling, it would not have any effect right away. The thin air in the upper atmosphere is simply not enough to create any drag effect on the parachute.

Preliminary Testing:

My major concerns with the electronics and design of my project (that I had control over) were;

1) Electronics (camera and phone) malfunctioning due to -60 celsius degree temperature

2) GPS software not transmitting coordinates properly

3) Duct tape not holding

4) Parachute failing

5) Landing in an area with no cell signal

To test #1 and #3, I assembled a test box and set up everything just as I would be doing during the real launch. I turned my electronics on, put in the hand warmers and taped the box. I then placed it in my freezer for 2 hours. (I know its not -60 but it was as close as I could get). Once I removed it from the freezer I noticed that the duct tape’s adhesive qualities were not diminished (#3). When I opened the box my electronics were still working properly and aside from the exposed lens of my camera, they were all still very warm (#1).
To test #2 I turned on the GPS app while on my way to school. During my trip there I turned off the phone, removed the battery, turned off 3G, and then turned it all back on. I did this to simulate what it would go through during the flight. I knew that at a certain altitude the phone would lose all signal so I had to make sure that a disruption in signal did not effect the GPS’s ability to transmit coordinates.
To test #4, I simply attached the parachute to a 1.5 lbs weight and dropped it from a height of about 12 feet, just to make sure it opened properly.
Regarding #5, my concern was that if my payload landed in a dead zone area, it would be impossible to transmit any GPS coordinates, eliminating any chance of finding my payload. To address this I researched T-mobile’s coverage around my area. I contacted T-Mobile for known strong signal areas as well as dead zones. I also found various coverage maps online. Using this I was able to plan my launch and predicted landing site accordingly.

Software:

I used the free GPS app Instamapper on my phone which would transmit coordinates to a Google based map on my computer.

To estimate the trajectory and landing zone of my balloon I used 3 different programs I found online as well as a  rough calculation I made on my own.

The 3 programs were:

BallTrack Online                                                                                                                    University Of Wyoming’s Balloon Track Program                                                    University of Cambridge Program

All 3 programs were fairly accurate in predicting the landing site. Only being off by 5-10 miles. The only tricky part is correctly determining the ascent rate, descent rate, and maximum altitude of your balloon. If you enter these incorrectly, it will affect the accuracy of your predicted trajectory. I strongly recommend using these programs as a guide for your launch.

For the editing process I used Final Cut Pro 7.

The Launch:

My launch site was chosen based on the forecasted wind patterns of that day. Living in Chicago, I really wanted to do everything possible to avoid it landing in Lake Michigan or on top of a skyscraper. I researched weather forecasts as far as 3 weeks before the launch date. Wind patterns for the launch date showed 10 mph winds coming from the WNW so I decided to make my launch site in a small park near some farm area 100 miles West of me. This also would be convenient in the sense that my payload should land somewhere East and I could just pick it up on our way back home. Despite some light winds, this day was ideal for my launch considering it is rare to get 42 degree weather in January in Chicago. My Dad, Brother-in-law, and Brother volunteered to help me with the launch and retrieval.

In order to inflate the balloon more effectively, I chose not to use the nozzle adaptor that came with the helium tank and instead build my own adaptor usig a PVC elbow and a 6ft tube. This allowed the helium to flow directly and rapidly to the balloon.

A big question for me was how much helium would I need? The best answer I found was to inflate the balloon with enough helium to lift the weight of the balloon, the payload and around one extra pound of free lift. This in theory should give an ascent rate of 1000ft/second. One cubic foot of helium will lift 28.2 grams. So what you need to do is fill in this equation:
[Weight f Balloon (g)  + Weight of Payload (g) + 500 grams] / 28.2
This will give you the amount of cubic feet of helium you will need.
However, in my case, When I filled my balloon with the calculated amount, I felt it was under inflated and the balloon looked like it was only half full. I was also really worried about the possibility of under inflating (under inflating would be a worse case scenario as the ballon would eventually level off at a certain altitude that would be no where near my desired altitude and would just continue to drift for hundreds of miles. Lesson here: TOO MUCH LIFT IS BETTER THAN NOT ENOUGH LIFT). I have also read of other people who have inflated their balloons of the same size with up to 150 cubic feet (although they had heavier payloads), so I decided to take a risks and empty my helium tanks for a total of around 120 cubic feet of Helium (see “Shortcomings” section for more about this).

Once everything was ready I double checked the set up and let the balloon go. (Make sure there are no obstructions near the launch site that could damage the balloon (telephone wires, trees, etc)). The launch went well and the balloon ascended very quickly, disappearing behind the clouds in just a few minutes. It was also clear that it was traveling ESE in accordance with the wind. Once the balloon was launched, we quickly drove back East, trying to get near the area where the balloon was projected to land.

Retrieval: 

Due to the high elevation, I lost GPS contact almost immediately after the launch. A little over an hour later, the GPS started transmitting again, showing me the location of my payload. It was 70 miles East near the vicinity of the projected landing site and only a 15 minute drive from my home. The GPS indicated that the payload was only a few yards away from a major highway so initially I was worried. Once we arrived at the spot, we pulled over by the shoulder of the highway and clearly saw it laying on the ground, perhaps ~20 feet from the road. Everything was still intact and it looked the same as when I launched it except for what remained of the balloon. It would of easily been able to undergo a second launch with no repairs needed. This suggested that the parachute worked just as I hoped and this idea was further supported by the GPS which recorded its descent speed to be ~30-40 mph. Once I opened the box, everything was still functioning and all electronics were still warm.

Shortcomings/Errors/Unexpected results:

One thing I noticed right away was that the balloon flight was very short. I was expecting somewhere near 2 hours but instead only got around 1 hour of flight. I attribute this to the excess helium I used. I believe putting more helium into the balloon caused it to burst sooner than at the expected altitude of ~100,000 feet. Based on some rough calculations I later made regarding ascent and descent rates, I estimate my peak altitude to be somewhere between 80,000-85,000 feet (short of my 100,000 feet goal).

Another strange result and obstacle I encountered was that the air tight protective housing in which my camera was in, was completely sealed shut. I could not open it no matter how hard I tried. I found it ironic how I managed to get this camera to and from space in one piece, yet I could not open it to see my results. Evenutally I realized that due to the very low pressure experienced, the case must of sealed itself completely shut. I had to wait until I got home to break the casing with a screw driver. (You could clearly hear a release of gas pressure when I did this).

One final error in my design was that my camera lens started to slightly frost/fog up once it encountered the below freezing temperature of the upper atmosphere. I expected this to happen but could not think of good solution at the time. In hindsight, perhaps an anti-fog spray would have worked well.

Conclusion:

Overall, despite a few draw backs, I was very satisfied with my results and the overall project and considered it a success. I accomplished the task of personally filming the edge of space. I got a first person view of how Earth looks from ~80,000 feet up in the air and I got a good glimpse of the darkness of space that surrounds our planet. Most importantly though, I managed to do this with the budget of a college student and with no professional knowledge or experience of physics, meteorology, or astronomy.

I personally think it would be great to see projects like this being implemented and incorporated into public school curriculum. I believe it will inspire many to pursue an interest in science which can eventually lead new breakthroughs in the field. As for my own future plans, I plan to re-do the project at some point using what I have already learned in order to obtain even better results. I hope everyone enjoyed this blog and found it both resourceful and educational. I also hope this helped convince others to attempt similar projects of their own. Thanks for reading!

Please feel free to ask any questions or make any comments.

-Enrique Rojas

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” -Albert Einstein

Pictures:

Close to Landing

Layers and Temperatures of Atmosphere

Wind Patterns for Launch Date

T-Mobile Coverage Map

Predicted Trajectory via Cambridge Program

Actual Trajectory

Instamapper

GPS Location of Landing

Video Editing Process

Video:

Please watch in full 1080p

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10 responses to “Project: Edge of Space

  1. Hello Enrique Rojas, I lead an ensemble of musicians & singers here in the UK called Seat Of The Pants Orchestra. We create live musical soundtracks for screenings of film & video, from classic silent movies to contemporary art videos. We improvise the music, no plan, no talk, just make it up – hence our name: we compose/fly by the seat of our pants. http://www.seatofthepantsorchestra.co.uk

    I came across your amazing video by accident. It is really great, I just love it, and fascinating to have all the background info on your blog too. All good.
    I was so inspired by your adventure that I have taken the liberty of adding a recording of part of one of our improvised musical soundtracks to a 720HD copy I downloaded. We originally played/improvised this music for a 1929 silent movie, but I remembered one of our singers making up some lines about “starlight” so I dug out the recording and I think it works really well with your video. I hope you are not offended that I’ve done this, it is with respect & admiration for your piece.
    I wondered if you might be interested to see/hear it?
    I have uploaded it to Youtube but ‘privately’ so its not available to view unless you have the URL, because its your video it would be wrong to just put it out there in the world without your permission.
    Do get in touch and I’ll pass on the link and I’d really welcome your thoughts.

    I hope your are well and thriving, and continuing to put an importance on imagination rather than just knowledge.

    Very best wishes from England,
    Philip Robinson

    • Hi Philip,

      I am so excited to hear about this. I’m really glad you enjoyed my video and I have no problem with you using it. Part of my goal in doing this project was to inspire innovation and creativity in others, so it does me well to hear that you found inspiration in my work and that you have continued to build off of it. I do look forward to hearing/seeing it and please feel free to publicly share it as you like.

      Thanks again and best wishes from Chicago,
      Enrique Rojas

      • Hey there Enrique from a grey & wet England,

        thanks for replying, really great to get your excitement and ‘thumbs up’ to add our soundtrack to your video piece.
        You can watch it here: http://youtu.be/70yBbaylZtU
        Its still as a ‘private listing’ but i will make it ‘public’ in a week or so unless I hear back that you hated it!
        As i mentioned before, the soundtrack extract was for something else altogether but i think fits rather beautifully with your video.

        One more suggestion. Later this year we are possibly putting together a show that will feature short films about ‘landscape’. We will create musical soundtracks at the screenings. Am wondering if it’d be ok to show your video (i have a 1080 HD version) and create a whole new soundtrack live in front of the screen. I’d do a short introduction about your project based on your Blog and also direct the audience to your site. We’d let you know if/when it was going ahead.
        Is that ok with you?

        All the very best to you,
        Philip

      • Hi Philip, I thought the video/soundtrack was awesome!! I would like to congratulate all of you on your great work. Of course you do have my permission to do use it on your show or anywhere else you like and I eagerly look forward to seeing/hearing it. In the meantime, I wish you nothing but continued success. Best Regards,Enrique

      • fabulous! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Will keep in touch about developments, and let you know if/when we plan to show your video. Onward, all the best to you Enrique – Philip

  2. Great project and the blog is extremely detailed for repeat experiences. I am a HS Physics teacher in Los Angeles, and I will be implementing a similar project w/ one of my Physics classes. In addition, I am also affiliated with the Teachers in Space program, and one of our workshops explores this type of flight experiment in detail. What’s interesting, is that they gave us additional instruction to test high-altitude equipment with a magnetometer, a dust collector, and other scientific measurement devices, all of which are programmed with an Arduino interface. A lot of it is (at the moment) a bit out of my scope of expertise, but the potential educational applications w/ students are endless.

    My estimated date of deployment for the balloon is December. I’ll post and share the results of my data online as we’ll. thank you for your contribution, and good luck with the rest of your explorations. Godspeed, Enrique.

    James Emley
    HS Physics / Aeronautics
    Valley Academy of Aets and Sciences
    http://www.rockerscience.com

    • Thanks for the comment James! I’m really glad these types of projects are being implemented in HS courses and props to you for taking such an initiative. It’s things like this that REALLY get people interested and excited about science. Best of luck to you as well and I look forward to seeing your results!

      Thanks again,
      Enrique

  3. Enrique,

    This blog is a huge help to me! I’m currently in the process of planning my first balloon launch to the stratosphere and the details you have here have helped me out a lot. One question I do have though, is where did you actually purchase your balloon? You mention that everything was bought on Amazon but the only 1200g balloons I’ve seen on there are a bit overpriced.

    Thanks so much!
    Adam Hayman

  4. Thanks for the detailed blog post! I am planning on doing a launch of my own this summer. Do you have any advice on stabilizing the payload so the video isn’t as rocky? Did the tubing help? Anything you wish you had tried in addition?

    Thanks!
    Joey

    • Hi Joey!

      Unfortunately, the payload will inevitably shake quite violently once it reaches the level in the atmosphere with winds of 100+ mph. That being said, you can always minimize the effect. The tubing worked wonders and by taping the end of the tubing to the top of the payload, you almost completely eliminate rotating motions in regards to the actual rope spinning the payload. The only other type of rotation to worry about is of the actual balloon but as I said, no much you can do that that; the wind will do what it likes with it. The good news is that once it ascends past that level of the atmosphere, the wind almost completely stops and it’s smooth sailing from there! That’s the time you’re able to capture the best and most majestic images and video. Please let me know if you have any other questions! We can discuss via email too if it helps. I don’t check this account frequently so I sometimes miss people’s questions/comments :/

      Good luck!!!
      Enrique

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