Near Space Ballooning Brings Amateurs a Step Towards Space

British amateurs captured this image of Earth from Near Space (Source: Alex Baker, Chris Rose via EPOD)

British amateurs captured this image of Earth from Near Space (Source: Alex Baker, Chris Rose via EPOD)

If close enough is good enough, you don’t need billions of dollars to build your own space project. You can send cameras and sensors into Near Space where conditions are similar to the surface of Mars. Flights into Near Space have become popular over the past few years as low-cost ways of giving students hands-on experience with space missions.

Near Space is a special place 30 kilometers above Earth’s surface but far below the 100 kilometer definition of Outer Space. It’s a region of the stratosphere that lies above 99% of our planet’s atmosphere. That makes it an ideal place for a telescope since infrared and energetic photons from distant stars and galaxies hasn’t been absorbed. It’s also a great place to test technology for planetary missions since the Near Space environment is similar to the surface of Mars.

Scientific balloon preparing for launch. (Source: Nasa/CSBF)

Scientific balloon preparing for launch. (Source: Nasa/CSBF)

The chance to do low-cost advanced research is the reason why scientists send the oldest flying machines into Near Space. Airplanes can’t fly that high. Suborbital rocket flights are brief and only carry small, rugged instruments. Balloons gently rise above 30 kilometers and can stay there for weeks at a time. These aren’t your typical party balloons. Nasa’s Balloon Program Office regularly flies high-tech balloons 140 meters across. These super balloons have the volume of almost 200 Goodyear Blimps and can lift a ton of equipment into Near Space.

Amateurs do the same thing on a smaller scale. They use the same low-tech weather balloons meteorologists launch into the sky every day. The helium-filled balloons lift a kilogram or two into Near Space - enough lift to carry cameras that capture images of Earth’s curved horizon and the atmosphere’s thin blue ribbon beneath the inky blackness of Outer Space. 

A typical amateur Near Space vehicle consists of a styrofoam box containing instruments attached to a parachute that’s suspended beneath the balloon’s helium-filled Latex envelope. The launch team partially fills the envelope with helium and takes care of any last-minute communications with air traffic control before releasing the balloon. As buoyancy lifts the balloon into the air, the helium expands until it stretches the envelope to its full diameter. The envelope keeps stretching until the balloon bursts. The parachute lets the instruments gently fall back to Earth. Where the recovery team uses GPS to find and recover the flight data.

With a little do-it-yourself experience, you can build and fly a Near Space mission as a cool weekend project. You can get most of the supplies from local hardware and electronics stores or from online retailers. The only challenge may be getting helium which is in short supply these days. Companies such as High Altitude Science in Colorado, Sky-Probe in California, and the UK-based Random Engineering and HAB Supplies were founded by Near Space ballooning enthusiasts who decided to help make life easier for other amateurs by selling ballooning supplies.

The harsh temperatures and low pressures in Near Space plays havoc with electronics and other materials. Batteries freeze or explode. Tapes, glues, and lubricants leak and evaporate. Only certain kinds of GPS trackers work at high altitudes. These companies build their kits using materials proven to work in Near Space. That may defeat the purpose for die-hard makers who care more for the trial-and-error process of figuring things out for themselves. If you’re more concerned with flying a successful mission the first time, however, the kits reduce the risks just like space-rated components reduce the risk for professional space missions.

High-altitude ballooning isn’t as well-established as other hobbies like model rocketry or amateur astronomy, but you can find communities of amateurs who work together on Near Space flights. Many of them emerged from the amateur radio community. Most tracking systems for high-altitude balloons rely on amateur radio operators who enjoy the challenge of finding and triangulating the weak signals broadcast from the balloons.

Internet communities make it even easier for Near Space ballooning enthusiasts to share their hobby. The Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning website collects mission information from projects around the world. Radio amateurs use the site to find nearby missions and contribute to tracking their flights. The Hab-Ham Forum provides a central place for amateur balloonists share their experiences and exchange ideas. Other online conversations include the Great Plains Super Launch Yahoo Group, the UK High Altitude Society Google Group, or the #highaltitude IRC channel

Amateurs can get together in real life by attending one of many regional and national events. The largest event in the United States is the Great Plains Super Launch, an annual meeting of amateur and professional high-altitude balloonists who attend a series of seminars and workshops on the first day. On the second day everyone gets together to launch balloons into Near Space, track their progress, and recover the payloads. The Academic High Altitude Conference brings university researchers together to discuss scientific ballooning. The conference isn’t just for the professionals as it always has a strong focus on the use of high-altitude ballooning in education. European balloonists gather at the UK High Altitude Society’s annual conferences

Several American universities organized the Global Space Balloon Challenge, a worldwide launch event that saw high school and university teams from Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, the United States, and 50 other countries launch balloons into Near Space. Participants could compete in several categories including highest altitude, best photograph, and best experiment. Winners get bragging rights and a $500 store credit with electronics supplier Sparkfun.

The parallels to space missions drive high-altitude ballooning’s growing popularity. Even the simplest satellite project can take years and thousands of dollars to develop. A flight into Near Space, on the other hand, is a quick and affordable way to get hands-on experience with all aspects of a space mission:

  • Systems Engineering: Successful missions require systems engineering to design and integrate mechanical and electronics systems.
  • Mission Operations: Planning a successful flight requires careful attention to all phases from launch through tracking, descent, and recovery. At the same time all members of the team must understand and comply with safety guidelines and government regulations.
  • Science Operations: Whether capturing pictures from the edge of space or exploring the Near Space environment, the project’s scientists must design the experiment, build the instrumentation, and analyze the data.
  • Project Leadership: Meeting schedule and budget milestones requires team-building and motivational skills.

That range of experience is one reason why many of Nasa’s explorers begin their careers with scientific balloon projects. Young professionals at JPL’s Phaeton professional development program, for example, recently designed a balloon-borne platform to test Mars exploration technology. Dr. Thomas Prince, former Chief Scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Nasa’s scientific ballooning roadmap team:

The NASA Balloon Program was critical to my development as a scientist, both in graduate school and as a junior faculty member at Caltech. I can’t imagine a better scientific training for experimental space science than the experience of building and launching a science payload on a balloon. You directly experience all the important steps: design to cost, schedule, weight, and power constraints; quality control and risk management; field operations; and reduction and analysis of data. The impact of the NASA Balloon Program goes far beyond the demonstration of technology and the direct science data that are produced—the scientists who ‘cut their teeth’ in the NASA Balloon Program are very often the leaders of today’s NASA space science missions and programs. (1) 

That experience isn’t just for the professionals. Sophisticated undergraduate or graduate research can go from proposal to flight within an academic year. The European Space Agency and the German and Swedish space agencies operate the Balloon Experiments for University Students program. Bexus flies experiments as large as 100 kilograms into Near Space. The Nasa-sponsored High Altitude Student Platform flies a dozen student experiments at a time for up to a day in Near Space. Nasa also sponsors individual high-altitude student research projects through each state’s member of the National Space Grant Foundation.

Isle of Wight from Near Space (source: Queen Mary's Grammar School)

Isle of Wight from Near Space (source: Queen Mary's Grammar School)

Primary and secondary schools also use high-altitude balloon projects to bring experiential learning into STEM education. The United Kingdom's Queen Mary’s Grammar School, for example, conducts an annual series of high-altitude balloon flights that regularly reach altitudes over 30,000 meters. The students get to watch the experiment and the Near Space vehicle they built soar into the air and then analyze the scientific data and pictures that they brought back from the edge of space. Amateur groups often include local students in their Near Space flights. More formal programs include:

  • Wallops Balloons Experience for Education: Each summer teachers from around the country travel to the Wallops Flight Facility where they learn how to design and operate balloon missions. 
  • Teaching on the Edge: Ball State University’s digital library provides teachers lesson plans and experiment suggestions.
  • Small Satellites for Secondary Schools: Sonoma State University conducts workshops to help teachers with the electronics skills needed to design more sophisticated balloon-borne experiments. 
  • PongSats: JP Aerospace has flown over 20,000 student experiments into Near Space. As long as the experiment fits into a ping-pong ball, the student project flies for free. Kickstarter projects in 2013 and 2014 let them increase the number of student projects to over 2,000 a year.

Near Space ballooning is a stepping stone to space in more ways than one. JP Aerospace does more than fly student experiments. The members of the all-volunteer project have spent the past four decades and over 160 Near Space flights developing technology that will let 6-kilometer long airships reach orbit. The Tandem airship set a world record when it rose almost 29 kilometers above the Black Rock Desert in 2011. The full Airship-to-Orbit system is still years away, but their bootstrap approach takes a one small step at a time approach to space exploration.

JP Aerospace Tandem airship in Near Space. (Source: JP Aerospace)

JP Aerospace Tandem airship in Near Space. (Source: JP Aerospace)

(1) “NASA Stratospheric Balloons Pioneers of Space Exploration and Research Report of the Scientific Ballooning Planning Team” NP-2006-3-754-GSFC, originally retrieved from Balloon Program Office in June 29, 2012 since removed from all Nasa websites.