On May 5th, I had the opportunity to participate as part of a team that launched and tracked two high-altitude balloons. This was part of an educational outreach with Savannah River Academy, a school in my community. Members from my club, the Amateur Radio Club of Columbia County (ARCCC), and two meteorologists from the National Weather Service assisted the school with the balloon launch. This was part of a series of activities with the school to teach students about radio, weather and space, in preparation for a ham radio contact later this year with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station! Savannah River Academy was one of only a handful of schools in the U.S. selected to contact the ISS through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program.
The balloon launches were covered by two local TV stations and the local newspaper:
Columbia County students launch weather balloon
Students at Savannah River Academy participate in weather balloon launch
Sky is NOT the limit: Radio club partners with Grovetown students for weather balloon launch
Weather balloon camera captures breathtaking views above CSRA
The first balloon, which carried a payload with a SPOT Trace GPS tracker and a GoPro camera, was designed climb to an altitude of 70,000 – 100, 000 feet before bursting and falling back to earth. A parachute was attached to the payload so it could return to ground intact for retrieval by a chase crew. We expected the payload to land approximately 50 miles east of the launch site, but the balloon traveled much farther than anticipated. The chase teams scrambled and the payload was successfully retrieved approximately 150 miles from the launch site. The camera captured some amazing images while the balloon was in the stratosphere. Some of the best pictures are featured in the linked news stories.
This post focuses primarily on the second “pico” balloon, which carried only a LightAPRS-W APRS and WSPR tracker as the payload, and was designed to reach an altitude of approximately 50,000 – 60,000 feet and achieve neutral buoyancy to travel for a much longer period of time. The LightAPRS-W, which is very small, was powered by two small PowerFilm 4.8V solar panels with two 5F 3V supercapacitors. With this power source, the tracker transmits APRS on VHF at .5 to 1 Watt, and WSPR on HF at 10 mW (1/100th of a Watt!).
We spent several days configuring and testing the tracker, using the configuration and programming instructions provided by QRP Labs on GitHub, and following some helpful suggestions in the Tips & Tricks for Pico Balloons wiki. The tracker also had two light wire antennas for APRS (19.4 inches) and 20 meter WSPR (16.6 feet), and a counterpoise (16.6 feet) attached.
Once assembled, the tracker was easy to configure with an Arduino IDE to load the APRS callsign (K4KNS-11), WSPR callsign (K4KNS), and a few other settings. It’s best to pay very close attention to the instructions and comments in the configuration file! After the loading the configuration, we placed the tracker in the sun to test and listen for APRS and WSPR signals. We were able to confirm that the tracker was transmitting good APRS and WSPR signals. Due to the very low power of the VHF and HF transmitters, we could only confirm local reception. With the tracker stationary and in full sunlight, we noted that the LightAPRS-W transmitted an APRS packet approximately every 5 minutes, and a WSPR signal every 4-6 minutes.
It’s one thing to have a good test under controlled conditions, but quite another to achieve success under field conditions. On the day of the launch, the weather was marginal, but within acceptable parameters for a launch. We double checked to ensure the tracker was powered up and transmitting, and tied it to the balloon.
We had a good launch. The balloon, with the tracker hanging 16.6 feet below the balloon (to accommodate the counterpoise) and trailing a 16.6 foot HF antenna, quickly rose to an altitude above any potential obstructions and began its journey. Within moments, we saw the first APRS positions appear on aprs.fi. A few moments later, using the WSPR Watch iPad app, we saw that the WSPR signal was being received across the U.S.!
It was all going so well! We continued to watch the balloon tracking eastward and climbing, following the same track as the high-altitude balloon that had been launched about a half hour earlier. Then, after about an hour of flight, both the APRS and WSPR signal went off the air. At that time the balloon was 55 miles east of the launch site at an altitude of 37,500 feet.
We’re not sure exactly why the signals were lost, but we do not believe the balloon went down in that location. We are speculating that the tracker may have been damaged due to the high wind speeds on lost power. It is unknown how much farther the balloon might have traveled. Despite the relatively short flight, we did collect some good data for the students at Savannah River Academy to evaluate. We also proved to ourselves that we could successfully launch a balloon and track it with APRS, and that a very weak WSPR signal transmitted from high altitude could be received by stations thousands of miles away!
Using aprs.fi’s data export tool, we were able to export a KMZ file with the balloon’s tracking data, and use Google Earth to view the full track and altitude changes.
This was an amazing experience! We captured many lessons learned, and we intend to build another more hardened version of the tracker so we can launch another balloon and hopefully track it over a much longer distance and time.
Additional information about both balloon launches is posted to the Amateur Radio Club of Columbia County Facebook page.