Rising To The Occasion: A Brief History Of Crewed High Altitude Balloons

Piccard inspects an instrument on his balloon (Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10382 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

We think of human flight as a relatively modern affair, with a few claims to the first airplane all around the turn of the last century. But people flew much earlier than that by using hot air balloons as well as gas-filled ones. While the Montgolfier brothers get most of the credit for hot air ballooning in 1783, there are some reports that a Brazilian priest may have lifted himself with a balloon as early as 1709.

Regardless, we’ve had balloons a good century earlier than winged flight, if not longer. While the device is deceptively simple, it is possible to get a balloon to very high altitudes without a lot of specialized technology. Airplanes at high altitudes need a way to get enough oxygen to fuel their engines, or they have to rely on rockets. Either way, there are plenty of design and operational challenges.

Balloons, of course, can simply rise to the occasion. Auguste Piccard and an assistant took a gas-filled balloon to 15,781 meters in 1931. Their gondola was pressurized, and they were the first humans to see the curvature of the Earth and the dark sky above. That record wouldn’t stand for long, though.

CCCP-1

The Soviet Union was keenly interested in Piccard’s flight, and the Soviet Air Force set about to build a research vessel, CCCP-1 (in English, USSR-1), that flew in 1933. The envelope was a large amount of thin fabric impregnated with latex and filled with hydrogen. The air-tight gondola presented several challenges in design. Most of the science experiments were outside, of course, and in 1933, you didn’t have an Arduino and RC servos to control things.

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Showing balloon rising up, not too far from the ground, with one of the FOSDEM buildings and sky in the background

FOSDEM Sees Surprise Pico Balloon Event

At any vaguely-related conferences, groups of hackers sometimes come together to create an impact, and sometimes that impact is swinging something into an airspace of a neighboring country. [deadprogram] tells us that such a thing happened at FOSDEM, where a small group of hackers came together (Nitter) to assemble, program and launch a pico balloon they named TinyGlobo 1, which then flew all the way to France!

This balloon is built around a RP2040, and the firmware is written in TinyGo, a version of Go language for microcontroller use. As is fitting for a hacker group, both the hardware and software are open source. Don’t expect custom PCBs though, as it’s a thoroughly protoboarded build. But a few off-the-shelf modules will get you the same hardware that just flew a 400km route! For build experiences, there’s also a few tweets from the people involved, and a launch video, also embedded below.

This reminds us of the Supercon 2022 balloon story — darn copycats! If you’re interested in the more Earthly details of this year’s FOSDEM open source development conference, check out our recent coverage.

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Hackaday Links: February 26, 2023

It’s probably safe to say that most of us have had enough of the Great Balloon Follies to last the rest of 2023 and well beyond. It’s been a week or two since anything untoward was spotted over the US and subsequently blasted into shrapnel, at least that we know of, so we can probably put this whole thing behind us.

But as a parting gift, we present what has to be the best selfie of the year — a photo by the pilot of a U-2 spy plane of the balloon that started it all. Assuming no manipulation or trickery, the photo is remarkable; not only does it capture the U-2 pilot doing a high-altitude flyby of the balloon, but it shows the shadow cast by the spy plane on the surface of the balloon.

The photo also illustrates the enormity of this thing; someone with better math skills than us could probably figure out the exact size of the balloon from the apparent size of the U-2 shadow, in fact.

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Answering Some Pico Balloon Questions

When the US Air Force shot down some suspected Chinese spy balloons a couple of weeks ago, it was widely reported that one of the targets might have been a much more harmless amateur radio craft. The so-called pico balloon K9YO was a helium-inflated Mylar balloon carrying a tiny solar-powered WSPR beacon, and it abruptly disappeared in the same place and time in which the USAF claimed one of their targets. When we covered  the story it garnered a huge number of comments both for and against the balloonists, so perhaps it’s worth returning with the views of a high-altitude-ballooning expert.

[Dave Akerman] has been sending things aloft for a long time now, we think he may have been one of the first to put a Raspberry Pi aloft back in 2012. In his blog post he attempts to answer the frequently asked questions about pico balloons, their legality, whether they should carry a beacon, and what the difference is between these balloons and the latex “weather balloon” type we’re familiar with. It’s worth a read, because not all of us are part of the high-altitude balloon community and thus it’s good to educate oneself.

Meanwhile, you can read our original report here.

The USAF (Almost) Declares War On Illinois Radio Amateurs

Every week the Hackaday editors gather online to discuss the tech stories of the moment, and among the topics this week was the balloons shot down over North America that are thought to be Chinese spying devices. Among the banter came the amusing thought that enterprising trolls on the Pacific rim could launch balloons to keep the fearless defenders of American skies firing off missiles into the beyond.

But humor may have overshadowed by events, because it seems one of the craft they shot down was just that. It wasn’t a troll though, the evidence points to an amateur radio pico balloon — a helium-filled Mylar party balloon with a tiny solar-powered WSPR transmitter as its payload.

The balloon thought to have been shot down was launched by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, a group of radio amateurs who launch small helium-filled Mylar balloons carrying the barest minimum for a solar-powered WSPR beacon. Its callsign was K9YO, and having circumnavigated the globe seven times since its launch on the 10th of October it was last seen off Alaska on February 11th. Its projected course and timing tallies with the craft reported shot down by the US Air Force, so it seems the military used hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of high-tech weaponry to shoot down a few tens of dollars worth of hobby electronics they could have readily tracked online. We love the smell of napalm in the morning!

Their website has a host of technical information on the balloons and the beacons, providing a fascinating insight into this facet of amateur radio that is well worth a read in itself. The full technical details of the USAF missile system used to shoot them down, sadly remains classified.

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Hackaday Links: February 12, 2023

So, maybe right now isn’t the best time to get into the high-altitude ballooning hobby? At least in the US, which with the downing of another — whatever? — over Alaska, seems to have taken a “Sidewinders first, threat identification later” approach to anything that floats by. The latest incident involved an aircraft of unknown type, described as “the size of a small car” — there’s that units problem again — that was operating over Prudhoe Bay off the northern coast of Alaska. The reason that was given for this one earning a Sidewinder was that it was operating much lower than the balloon from last week, only about 40,000 feet, which is well within the ceiling of commercial aviation. It was also over sea ice at the time of the shootdown, making the chance of bothering anyone besides a polar bear unlikely. We’re not taking any political position on this whole thing, but there certainly are engineering and technical aspects of these shootdowns that are pretty interesting, as well as the aforementioned potential for liability if your HAB goes astray. Nobody ever really benefits from having an international incident on their resume, after all.

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