GoPro's near space experiment

It’s been three months since we originally decided to take part in the Global Space Balloon Challenge 2015.  I got up at 4am on Saturday morning… even with a 3 year old I’m still not used to getting up that early. Took a quick shower and headed over to BinarySpace hoping … nay praying that I loaded everything we would need today. Today was the coming together of our HAB launch. How hard can it be? You take a balloon, fill it with helium, add a camera and let it go somewhere…

In the past months we learned about ‘Flexible use of airspace’ approval, helium calculations, ham radio, APRS trackers, flight predictions, etc. Launching a high altitude balloon is by no means an original idea so we spent quite a few hours researching the internet, on articles documenting other successful and failed launches. We also got advice from various groups in South Africa, that do this on a regular basis (HABEX, Habspace).

We were at our launch date. The goal: to launch a helium filled balloon, that should reach an altitude of 30000m and to then successfully recover it.

We used a 600g weather balloon, a parachute and a polystyrene cooler box for our payload. Inside the payload we had a GoPro camera, a Trackuino aprs tracker that we built at the space, some batteries and a mintyboost kit to supply some extra power to the GoPro. We also threw in a hand warmer to keep the electronics functioning at the very low temperatures, found at high altitudes.

All the guys from Vanderbijlpark met together at BinarySpace and from there we left for our destination (which is about a 2 hours drive). Other members from the team came from Johannesburg and Witbank and we met them on site. We arrived at 7:15am and there was a group of people already waiting for us. Originally we were under the impression that the airfield was abandoned, but we found it closed off with security. A quick chat with them, explaining what we wanted to do, and we got in.

Since we wanted to launch as early as possible we immediately setup a spot and started getting everything ready. Wolff came prepared with a nice ground sheet for inflating the balloon and a table for preparing the payload. I started finishing up the payload while Wolff and Hanno took charge of inflating the balloon (with a few helping hands to make sure the balloon was handled carefully).

I started finishing up the payload while Wolff and Hanno took charge of inflating the balloon (with a few helping hands to make sure the balloon was handled carefully.

Preparing the payload involved, sticking down all our electronics with duct-tape, connecting the lithium batteries and starting the recording on the GoPro camera.

We also had to make sure that our space commander is secured on the payload.

Half an hour later Wolff and Hanno were ready with the balloon and we attached the payload to the balloon. At this point we were ready to launch, but had to wait while Michael phoned Air Traffic Control to get final permission to launch.

Once we received permission we did a quick countdown and let the balloon go. It was almost anti-climatic after all the work. We all watched it go up and disappear into the skies…

Minutes later someone told us that the signal is coming through properly and that even the guys in Johannesburg were getting the signal on their radio’s. We packed up and started the chase 

Every minute a new APRS packet was received telling us that our balloon is going higher and higher but also heading into its own direction.  It was moving fast.

40 minutes after our launch the signal fell silent. No pings received by any of the digi-repeaters. We kept driving in the same direction for a while waiting for the next position, but nothing came. We decided to stop for a bit, contact the other HAM guys and hear if anybody was receiving something. You could see on the faces of everybody that they thought this was the end. At least we launched it successfully…

15 minutes later we suddenly got a new position message. The balloon was still alive, but has flown quite the distance and it also went up another 10km in the time we didn’t receive anything. Time to move!  We jumped into the cars and headed to the current position received. Unfortunately, our happiness was short lived and the signal fell silent again. We decided to head to the last position and then again would decide what to do once we get there.

This time it took about 30 minutes before we received a new message, but it also changed direction. We joked that it was probably heading back to the launch site.

The updates came more consistent and we watched our screens as the balloon went higher and higher. At around an altitude of about 30000m we were waiting for an indication that it had burst and was coming down, yet it still went up to 31338m and then to 32507m and then it started dropping … fast. It had burst and it was time to move again. The next 40 minutes consisted of driving fast over dirt roads, changing direction a few times and some cursing (mostly because balloons don’t have to follow the roads).

Eventually we ended up outside a farm. From the data it seemed that the balloon stopped descending. We stopped at an intersection, pulled out a different antenna and after a few received signals, we knew it was on the ground and somewhere on that farm.

Apart from a few stickers that started peeling off the payload was in perfect condition, even our space commander survived the trip

GoPro footage from the balloon


Some Stats

Final payload weight was 630g
Final Nett lift was 960g
Final Neck Lift was 1590g

Launched 08:08
Lost Signal 08:44 at 11992.05m
Single Ping at 09:01 at 16510.71m (internal temp -3)
Proper Signal again at 09:30 at 24954.59
Highest Altitude: 32507.22m
Balloon Burst at 09:51
Landed 10:40
Flight Time ~ 2 hours 32 min

Predicted Flight vs. Actual Flight:

We would like to thank everybody who was involved, including the ham radio teams who helped with tracking, the various parties we pestered with questions and many more. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Written by - BinarySpace