Tiny Radio Tracks Your Balloons

The name of the game in rocketry or ballooning is weight. The amount of mass that can be removed from one of these high-altitude devices directly impacts how high and how far it can go. Even NASA, which estimates about $10,000 per pound for low-earth orbit, has huge incentives to make lightweight components. And, while the Santa Barbara Hackerspace won’t be getting quite that much altitude, their APRS-enabled balloon/rocket tracker certainly helps cut down on weight.

Tracksoar is a 2″ x .75″ x .5″ board which weighs in at 45 grams with a pair of AA batteries and boasts an ATmega 328P microcontroller with plenty of processing power for its array of on-board sensors. Not to mention everything else you would need like digital I/O, a GPS module, and, of course, the APRS radio which allows it to send data over amateur radio frequencies. The key to all of this is that the APRS module is integrated with the board itself, which saves weight over the conventional method of having a separate APRS module in addition to the microcontroller and sensors.

As far as we can see, this is one of the smallest APRS modules we’ve ever seen. It could certainly be useful for anyone trying to save weight in any high-altitude project. There are a few other APRS projects out there as well but remember: an amateur radio license will almost certainly be required to use any of these.

Retrotechtacular: Stateside Assembly and Launch of V-2 Rockets

At the end of World War II, the United States engaged in Operation Paperclip to round up German V-2 rockets and their engineers. The destination for these rockets? White Sands Proving Grounds in the New Mexico desert, where they would be launched 100 miles above the Earth for the purpose of high altitude research.

This 1947 War Department Film Bulletin takes a look inside the activities at White Sands. Here, V-2 rockets are assembled from 98% German-made parts constructed before V-E day. The hull of each rocket is lined with glass wool insulation by men without masks. The alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks are connected together, and skins are fitted around them to keep fuel from leaking out. Once the hull is in place around the fuel tanks, the ends are packed with more glass wool. Now the rocket is ready for its propulsion unit.

In the course of operation, alcohol and liquid oxygen are pumped through a series of eighteen jets to the combustion chamber. The centrifugal fuel pump is powered by steam, which is generated separately by the reaction between hydrogen peroxide and sodium permanganate.

A series of antennas are affixed to the rocket’s fins. Instead of explosives, the warhead is packed with instruments to report on high altitude conditions. Prior to launch, the rocket’s tare weight is roughly five tons. It will be filled with nine tons of fuel once it is erected and unclamped.

At the launch site, a gantry crane is used to add the alcohol, the liquid oxygen, and the steam turbine fuels after the controls are wired up. The launch crew assembles in a blockhouse with a 27-foot-thick roof of reinforced concrete and runs through the protocol. Once the rocket has returned to Earth, they track down the pieces using radar, scouting planes, and jeeps to recover the instruments.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Stateside Assembly and Launch of V-2 Rockets”

Operation StratoSphere


Panoramic photos are nice, however a full 360 degree x 180 degree, or spherical panorama would be even better. [Caleb Anderson] decided to take this concept much further, attempting to extract panoramic photos from video taken at 100,000 feet using a high-altitude balloon and six GoPro cameras.

The overview of this project can be found here, and gives some background. The first task was to start prototyping some payload containers, which for a device that you have little control over once out of your hands is quite critical. As well as some background, there’s a cool interactive panorama of the first test results on this page, so be sure to check it out.

The “real” hacking in this experiment wasn’t a matter of putting a balloon into the stratosphere or recovering it, however. Chaining these images together into pictures was a huge challenge, and involved a diverse set of skills and software knowledge that most of our readers would be proud to possess. There are several videos in the explanation, but we’ve embedded one with the cameras falling out of the sky. Be sure to at least watch until (or skip to) just after 1:05 where all the cameras impressively survive impact! Continue reading “Operation StratoSphere”

Task scheduler for Arduino

For their recent high altitude balloon project LVL1 member [Brad] programmed a pretty complicated brain based on an Arduino. It was responsible for collecting data from all of the sensors, and reporting back in a few different ways. One of the things he did to simplify the project was develop a task scheduler for the Arduino board. It lets you add functions to a queue of jobs, along with data about when they should be run.

The task scheduler does make coding a bit easier, but where it really shines is in situations like this where you don’t have access to the hardware if there’s a problem. In his description of the scheduler [Brad] mentions the possibility that one of the sensors could fail as the cold of the upper atmosphere takes its toll. This could leave the whole system stuck in a subroutine, and therefore it will stop sending reports back to the team on the ground. Since he was using the task scheduler it was a snap to add watchdog timer servicing to the mix. Now if program execution gets stuck the watchdog will reset the chip and all is not lost.

[Thanks  JAC_101]

Arduino balloon tracking

The Ferret is a high-altitude balloon tracking hardware package. Created by [Adam Greig] and [Jon Sowman], it uses an Arduino to gather NMEA data from a GPS unit, format the data into a string, and transmit that string on narrow-band FM. The project, built in one afternoon, is a tribute to the prototyping simplicity the Arduino provides.

The unit was powered by four AA batteries, using the Arduino’s on board voltage regulator. This provided a bit of heat which helps in the frigid reaches of the upper atmosphere. The bundle above was put in a project box and attached to the outside of the balloon’s payload, then covered with foam for warmth and moisture resistance. This tracking is a lot less complicated than some of the photography setups we’ve seen for balloons. It’s also more versatile because it broadcasts the GPS data so that many people can track it, rather than just logging its location.