High-Altitude Balloon Tracker Does Landing Prediction With Pi Pico

[Dave Akerman]’s ongoing high altitude balloon (HAB) work is outstanding, and we’re all enriched by the fact that he documents his work like he does. Recently, [Dave] wrote about his balloon tracker based on the Raspberry Pi Pico, whose capabilities brought a couple interesting features to the table.

In a way, HAB trackers have a fairly simple job: read sensors such as GPS and constantly relay that data to someone on the ground so that the balloon’s location can be tracked, and the hardware recovered when it ultimately returns to Earth. There are a lot of different ways to do this tracking, and one thing [Dave] enjoys is getting his hands on a new board and making a HAB tracker out of it. That’s exactly what he has done with the Raspberry Pi Pico.

Nothing builds familiarity like actually using a part, and the Pico had some useful things to contribute to a HAB tracker application. For one thing, the Pico has an onboard buck-boost converter that allows it to be powered from a relatively wide voltage range (~1.8 V to 5.5 V), so running it directly from batteries is both possible and desirable from a tracker perspective. But a really useful feature was possible thanks to the large amount of memory on the Pico: dynamic landing prediction.

[Dave] does landing prediction prior to launch based on environmental conditions, but it’s always better if the HAB tracker can also calculate its own prediction based on actual observed events and conditions. A typical microcontroller board like an Arduino doesn’t have enough memory to store the required data upon which to do such calculations, but the Pico does so easily. [Dave]’s new board transmits an updated landing site prediction along with all the rest of the telemetry, making the retrieval process much more reliable.

Want to see a completely different approach to HAB recovery? Check out a payload guided by steerable parachutes.

3D Printing Makes Modular Payload For Model Rocket

Putting payloads into model rockets can be more complex than simply shoving stuff into an open spot, so [concretedog] put some work into making a modular payload tube for his current rocket. The nose cone for his rocket is quite large, so he opted to give it a secure payload area that doesn’t compromise or interfere with any of the structural or operational bits such as the parachute.

The payload container is a hollow tube with a 3D printed threaded adaptor attached to one end. Payload goes into the tube, and the tube inserts into a hole in the bulkhead, screwing down securely. The result is an easy way to send up something like a GPS tracker, possibly with a LoRa module attached to it. That combination is a popular one with high-altitude balloons, which, like rockets, also require people to retrieve them after not-entirely-predictable landings. LoRa wireless communications have very long range, but that doesn’t help if there’s an obstruction like a hill between you and the transmitter. In those cases, a simple LoRa repeater attached to a kite, long pole, or drone can save the day.

We’ve seen [concretedog]’s work before, when he designed stackable PCBs intended to easily fit inside model rocket bodies, allowing for easy integration of microcontroller-driven functions like delayed ignitions or altimeter triggers. Better development tools, hardware, and 3D printing has really helped make smarter rocketry more accessible to hobbyists.

It’s NICER In Orbit

Given the sheer volume of science going on as the International Space Station circles above our heads every 90 minutes or so, it would be hard for any one experiment to stand out. ISS expeditions conduct experiments on everything from space medicine to astrophysics and beyond, and the instruments needed to do the science have been slowly accreting over the years. There’s so much stuff up there that almost everywhere you turn there’s a box or pallet stuck down with hook-and-loop fasteners or bolted to some bulkhead, each one of them doing something interesting.

The science on the ISS isn’t contained completely within the hull, of course. The outside of the station fairly bristles with science, with packages nestled in among the solar panels and other infrastructure needed to run the spacecraft. Peering off into space and swiveling around to track targets is an instrument with the friendly name NICER, for “Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer.” What it does and how it does it is interesting stuff, and what it’s learning about the mysteries of neutron stars could end up having practical uses as humanity pushes out into the solar system and beyond.

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High-Altitude Ballooning Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the high-altitude ballooning Hack Chat!

The Cope brothers are our hosts this week. Jeremy, a computer engineer, and Jason, a mechanical engineer, have recently caught the high-altitude ballooning (HAB) bug. In their initial flights they’ve racked up some successes and pushed the edge of space with interesting and varied missions. Their first flight just barely missed the 100,000 foot (30,000 meter) mark and carried a simple payload package of cameras and GPS instruments and allowed them to reach their goal of photographing the Earth’s curvature.

Flight 2 had a similar payload but managed to blow through the 100K foot altitude, capturing stunning video of the weather balloon breaking. Their most recent flight carried a more complex payload package, consisting of the usual camera and GPS but also a flight data recorder of their own devising, as well as a pair of particle detectors to measure the change in flux of subatomic particles with increasing altitude. That flight “only” reached 62,000 ft (19,000 meters) but managed to hitch a ride on the jet stream that nearly took the package out to sea.

The Cope brothers will be joining the Hack Chat to talk about the exciting field of DIY high-altitude ballooning and the challenges of getting a package halfway to space (depending on how that’s defined). Please join us as we discuss:

  • The basics of flight – balloons, rigging, payload protection, tracking, and recovery;
  • Getting started on the cheap;
  • Making a flight into a mission with interesting and innovative ideas for payload instrumentation;
  • Will hobbyist HABs ever break the Kármán Line? and
  • What’s in store for this year’s Global Space balloon Challenge?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the High-Altitude Ballooning Hack Chat event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.


Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 6, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

join-hack-chatClick that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

35C3: A Deep Dive Into DOS Viruses And Pranks

Oh, the hijinks that the early days of the PC revolution allowed. Back in the days when a 20MB hard drive was a big deal and MS-DOS 3.1 ruled over every plain beige PC-clone cobbled together by enthusiasts like myself, it was great fun to “set up” someone else’s machine to do something unexpected. This generally amounted to finding an unattended PC — the rooms of the residence hall where I lived in my undergrad days were a target-rich environment in this regard — and throwing something annoying in the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. Hilarity ensued when the mark next booted the machine and was greeted with something like an inverted display or a faked hard drive formatting. Control-G was good to me too.

So it was with a sense of great nostalgia that I watched [Ben Cartwright-Cox]’s recent 35C3 talk on the anatomy and physiology of viruses from the DOS days. Fair warning to the seasoned reader that a sense of temporal distortion is inevitable while watching someone who was born almost a decade after the last meaningful release of MS-DOS discuss its inner workings with such ease. After a great overview of the DOS API elements that were key to getting anything done back then, malware or regular programs alike, he dives into his efforts to mine an archive of old DOS viruses, the payloads of most of which were harmless pranks. He built some tools to find viruses that triggered based on the system date, and used an x86 emulator he designed to test every day between 1980 and 2005. He found about 10,000 malware samples and explored their payloads, everything from well-wishes for the New Year to a bizarre foreshadowing of the Navy Seal Copypasta meme.

We found [Ben]’s talk a real treat, and it’s good to see someone from the current generation take such a deep dive into the ways many of us cut our teeth in the computing world.

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This USB Drive Will Self-Destruct After Ruining Your Computer

Who would have thought that you could light up pyrotechnics on USB power? This USB keystroke injector that blows up after it’s used proves the concept.

Fully aware that this is one of those “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” projects, [MG] takes pains to point out that his danger dongle is just for dramatic effect, like a prop for a movie or the stage. In fact, he purposely withholds details on the pyrotechnics and concentrates on the keystroke injection aspect, potentially nasty enough by itself, as well as the dongle’s universal payload launching features. We’re a little bummed, because the confetti explosion (spoiler!) was pretty neat.

The device is just an ATtiny85 and a few passives stuffed into an old USB drive shell, along with a MOSFET to trigger the payload. If you eschew the explosives, the payload could be anything that will fit in the case. [MG] suggests that if you want to prank someone, an obnoxious siren might be a better way to teach your mark a lesson about plugging in strange USB drives.

While this isn’t the most dangerous thing you can do with a USB port, it could be right up there with that rash of USB killer dongles from a year or so ago. All of these devices are fun “what ifs”, but using them on anything but your own computers is not cool and possibly dangerous. Watching the smoke pour out of a USB socket definitely drives home the point that you shouldn’t plug in that thumbdrive that you found in the bathroom at work, though.

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Aireon Hitchhikes On Iridium To Track Airplanes

SpaceX just concluded 2017 by launching 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. A footnote on the launch was the “hosted payload” on board each of the satellites: a small box of equipment from Aireon. They will track every aircraft around the world in real-time, something that has been technically possible but nobody claimed they could do it economically until now.

Challenge one: avoid adding cost to aircraft. Instead of using expensive satcom or adding dedicated gear, Aireon listen to ADS-B equipment already installed as part of international air traffic control modernization. But since ADS-B was designed for aircraft-to-aircraft and aircraft-to-ground, Aireon had some challenges to overcome. Like the fact ADS-B antenna is commonly mounted on the belly of an aircraft blocking direct path to satellite.

Challenge two: hear ADS-B everywhere and do it for less. Today we can track aircraft when they are flying over land, but out in the middle of the ocean, there are no receivers in range except possibly other aircraft. Aireon needed a lot of low-orbit satellites to ensure you are in range no matter where you are. Piggybacking on Iridium gives them coverage at a fraction of the cost of building their own satellites.

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