In 2016, I launched a high altitude balloon (HAB) to send a camera and Arduino over 25km (82,000 – 98,000+ feet) into the stratosphere to capture some amazing footage of the Earth (video) as well as some meaningful data.
In this post I’m going to talk about the equipment needed and some advice and direction on how to find some of these items (note: all of the links are to Australian shops but I believe the equivalent gear can be found in most places or ordered online).
What is a high altitude balloon?
It might seem like a silly question, since if you’re reading this you probably already have an interest in the science of high altitude ballooning, but for the purpose of this series a “high altitude balloon” is an unmanned balloon normally filled with helium that is released/sent into the Earth’s stratosphere (10 – 50km / 32,000 – 162,000 feet). The purpose of a civilian high altitude balloon is to conduct science experiments or capture footage of the stratosphere, which if you read on you’ll see I did both of those things.
How much does it cost?
Launching a high altitude balloon is moderately expensive but much less expensive than sending a rocket to the same height. Overall is cost me somewhere between $1,500-2,000 Australian dollars ($1,000 – $1,500 USD) as you’ll see below. I definitely could have spent more time sourcing cheaper parts online and its important to note that I started with nothing except for a laptop and a garage with some basic tools. I acquired everything else (including a GoPro). I’ll do my best to put rough prices and references against the list of gear needed below (prices are all in Australian dollars).
A list of the equipment I used:
1 x Kaymont Totex 600 Gram Meteorological Balloon – $118 from eBay (make sure to take good care of this and avoid extreme temperature changes as much as possible)
1 x Helium 3.5m3 cylinder and regulator with pressure gauge – $169 delivered to your door from a gas supplier such as Supagas
1 x Nylon parachute with spill hole, the size depends on your payload weight, so you probably need to make this one of the last things you buy – $30-40 from a local rocketry store or Amazon/eBay
1 x Medium sized sheet of polystyrene or a small polystyrene box, needs to be thick enough to survive impact but not too thick that it adds lots of weight – $20-30 from a local craft or form and rubber supplier such as ClarkRubber
1 x HotHands or similar shake to activate hand warmer packet used for in-flight heating – $1 from your local pharmacy
1 x 10-20m thin utility rope (the one I got had a breaking strength of 125kg) – $15 from your local hardware store, bonus points if the rope is slightly reflective
1 x Decent sized roll of reflective silver tape, used for a radar reflector and to insulate the payload box from moisture – $5 from your local hardware store
1 x Tube of polystyrene friendly glue – $1 from your local hardware store
1 x Shoebox or small cardboard box to cut up to make a radar reflector – $0
(b) Sensors and tracking electronics
1 x Lightweight 7.4V Lipo 2200mAh battery with an Arduino power adapter – $34.50 from Little Bird Electronics
1 x Interchangeable prototyping board shield for Arduino – $15 from Jaycar
1 x Ublox NEO-6M or equivalent GPS module for Arduino that works up to 35km altitude or higher – $20-80 from eBay, (be careful when buying cheap copies from China as they can be faulty)
1 x Pack of assorted wires – $5 from an electronics store such as Jaycar
1 x Soldering iron – $19 from an electronics store such as Jaycar
1 x Small tube of solder – $2 from an electronics store such as Jaycar
2 x Meters of RG59 coaxial antenna cable – $2-3 from your local hardware store or an electronics store such as Jaycar
1 x Back up personal GPS like the Spot Trace – $322 inclusive of subscription to activate it from an outdoor store or GPS store like Johnny Appleseed (this is optional but 100% worth it as it could save you from losing your entire payload if the primary GPS fails or is obstructed)
(c) Optional temperature experiment (or other experiment) to send up with your payload:
1 x Second Arduino Uno or equivalent microcontroller (see above)
1 x Second lightweight 7.4V Lipo 2200mAh battery (see above)
1 x Datalogger SD card shield for Arduino Uno to log temperature data to an SD card – $15 from Altronics
1 x 16GB SD card – $15 from any office store such as Officeworks
1 x Arduino compatible temperature sensor with -50C or colder accuracy range – $10 from Altronics or any other sensor that you’d like
Sub-total including optional items: $615
Sub-total excluding optional items: $188.50
(d) Radio ground station
1 x FUNcube Pro Plus SDR (software defined radio) dongle – $230 from the FUNcube website
1 x Socket to connect your RG59 coaxial cable to your FUNcube – $15 or so from an electronics store such as Jaycar (they should help locate the right connector)
1 x Metal coat hanger – $2 from your local supermarket or homeware store used to create your moxon antenna
1 x Small bunch of craft wood – $10-15 from your local hardware store used to create your moxon antenna
1 x Laptop with USB (hopefully you have one of these at home or can borrow one since you’ll need it to track the payload)
1 x GoPro Hero 3 or Hero 3+ model, which work great and are cheaper than the latest models – $150-200 second hand from eBay (this might be even cheaper now)
1 x 32GB SD card – $27 from your local office store such as Officeworks
(f) Launch approval and launch day costs
1 x Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) processing and consideration of launch approval – $320 (varies based on time taken)
1 x Fuel to drive to the launch site – $70 although obviously varies from person to person, though normally the launch has to be far from any major city or airport for air safety reasons
Without optional items: $1,484
With optional items: $1,911
A note regarding optional items:
I’d strongly suggest getting the Spot Trace or similar back up GPS device for 2 reasons (1) I believe it really helped me personally get approval for my flight because I could give the team at CASA a website link to view the Spot GPS results in real time while the balloon was in motion and (2) my primary GPS ended up having problems later on in the flight, which meant I might never have recovered my payload if I didn’t have the back up GPS.
I’d also suggest acquiring the second Arduino for two reasons (1) its really fun to track something more than the visual images from your GoPro, I tracked temperature to an SD card (-48C being the coldest I tracked) but you could easily substitute that for tracking air pressure or UV light or whatever you want (2) if you do run an experiment i’d suggest making sure it goes on its own separate Arduino board since the radio transmitter can be somewhat sensitive and you don’t want to interfere with it by putting another sensor on the main Arduino board, it really depends on your level of confidence with Arduino.
That’s a wrap
Those are the basic materials and cost of a High Altitude Balloon launch, if you think I missed anything let me know!