Introduction: My Space Balloon: Project Stratohab Success!! High School Student's Budget

About: I'm 17. I enjoy making cool stuff, and promoting the "maker" community. Vote for my space balloon in the hurricane laser contest and hands on learning!!
"We're making space more American. We're making space more democratic. We're making space more available, approachable and real to the average American."  - James Muncy, President of Polispace

As an avid maker and hobbyist, I support the open source initiative like the Arduino micro controller platform. When I decided to start this project 6 months ago, I dreamed of reaching space on a high school student's budget. Along the way, I also dreamed of publishing my research and development on near space, so we can make space more democratic and available to the everyday DIY-er.

Through my research, I never found a COMPLETE guide that would get me into space. Hence why the project took 6 months. This guide will be a FULL guide so you don't have to spend the same 6 months trying to figure out which systems work the best. For a reasonable budget, this inscrutable will get you into space. 

On August 19, 2012, we launch a near space balloon on a high school student's budget from Brookfield, CT, equipped with tracking equipment and a Canon camera programmed to take pictures every 15 seconds. We captured the entire journey on film.

All the photos:


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Step 1: Safety - Calling the FAA

The ordinary person cannot just launch things into space whenever they please. You MUST abide by the rules that govern your state or country. On that note, I  AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT GOES WRONG IN YOU ENDEAVORS.

In order to get approval, you must talk things over with the FAA if you're in the united states since they govern the skies. I called the U.S. NOTAM office. 1-877-487-6867. Be prepared to play some phone tag. Be diligent. You can't launch without this clearance.

They'll ask you a bunch of questions about launch time, location, and payload weight. A full list can be found in the FAA guide.

(a) Prelaunch notice: Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person may operate an unmanned free balloon unless, within 6 to 24 hours before beginning the operation, he gives the following information to the FAA ATC facility that is nearest to the place of intended operation:

(1) The balloon identification.

(2) The estimated date and time of launching, amended as necessary to remain within plus or minus 30 minutes.

(3) The location of the launching site.

(4) The cruising altitude.

(5) The forecast trajectory and estimated time to cruising altitude or 60,000 feet standard pressure altitude, whichever is lower.

(6) The length and diameter of the balloon, length of the suspension device, weight of the payload, and length of the trailing antenna.

(7) The duration of flight.

(8) The forecast time and location of impact with the surface of the earth.

(b) For solar or cosmic disturbance investigations involving a critical time element, the information in paragraph (a) of this section shall be given within 30 minutes to 24 hours before beginning the operation.

(c) Cancellation notice: If the operation is canceled, the person who intended to conduct the operation shall immediately notify the nearest FAA ATC facility.

(d) Launch notice: Each person operating an unmanned free balloon shall notify the nearest FAA or military ATC facility of the launch time immediately after the balloon is launched.

§ 101.39   Balloon position reports.

(a) Each person operating an unmanned free balloon shall:

(1) Unless ATC requires otherwise, monitor the course of the balloon and record its position at least every two hours; and

(2) Forward any balloon position reports requested by ATC.

(b) One hour before beginning descent, each person operating an unmanned free balloon shall forward to the nearest FAA ATC facility the following information regarding the balloon:

(1) The current geographical position.

(2) The altitude.

(3) The forecast time of penetration of 60,000 feet standard pressure altitude (if applicable).

(4) The forecast trajectory for the balance of the flight.

(5) The forecast time and location of impact with the surface of the earth.

(c) If a balloon position report is not recorded for any two-hour period of flight, the person operating an unmanned free balloon shall immediately notify the nearest FAA ATC facility. The notice shall include the last recorded position and any revision of the forecast trajectory. The nearest FAA ATC facility shall be notified immediately when tracking of the balloon is re-established.

(d) Each person operating an unmanned free balloon shall notify the nearest FAA ATC facility when the operation is ended.

Step 2: Apparatus Overview

In order to get into space, you need a few key things. The first and most important is the balloon. This is a high quality scientific weather balloon that can reach altitudes of 100,000 feet. Tied to the balloon in order is the balloon itself, parachute, radar reflector, and payload. I'll explain the importance of these objects a little bit later. After the balloon pops at its maximum altitude, the parachute will save the payload from demise. You'll want a parachute that can slow things down to about 7m/s. Below the parachute is a radar reflector. It does exactly what it sounds like. You can make this yourself. I can describe this further in the next few steps. The last and most important piece to the puzzle is the payload. This is usually a styrofoam box that carries all of your important electronics including a camera and gps.

Step 3: Flight Predictions

I used a few websites to predict the flight path of the balloon. You can use the website below [1] which will give you a KML google earth file. This takes into the consideration the wind and atmospheric conditions. Try to launch away from any oceans. Since I live in Connecticut, I traveled west  for launch.

Also, If your payload lands in the water, be sure to keep everything water tight, and buy electronics that are "waterproof."

If your doing this in any country other than the U.S. make sure you ask permission from a government agency.


Step 4: Balloon

I love balloons. But these ballons are not party balloons. They are serious stuff. Weather balloons reach altitudes of 100,000 ft and they are perfect for this project. If I were to do this 10 years ago, weather balloons wouldn't be as available as they are today. Costs for near space ballooning, especially GPS, have come down in recent years.

I searched a while on the internet to find a really good weather balloon. Since it is pretty easy for me to buy things off, I opted for the "more expensive" yet "more reliable" weather balloon from this trusted source. [1]

In comparison to other weather ballons. This one is quite small, but it will suit our needs. Here's some specs on the balloon:

Diameter at release = 6 ft. Diameter at burst altitude = 20 ft. Volume at release = 50-100 cuft. Nominal Lift = 3.8 lbs. Maximum Lift = 12 lbs. Neck diameter = 2.8 inches. Neck length = 9 inches. Ascent rate = 1000 ft/min. Burst altitude = 100,000 ft. Material = Natural latex

If you're short on cash, these ballons go for as low as $45 from other places.


Step 5: Parachute

Once again, I like Our friends over at Project Aether have designed a parachute that is just right for our needs. [1]

After many experimental trials with high altitude weather balloon payloads, we have arrived at this optimized parachute design. It allows for a stable parachute deployment at ~Mach 1 when the balloon initially bursts in the vacuum of near-space. The 36in diameter parachute is designed to yield a descent rate of 1500ft/min (15mph) once back into the thicker atmosphere near sea level.

The bright orange and white gives a high contrast for high visibility during flight and recovery phases. The Project Aether recovery chute is individually hand made in the USA with a 6 sided design using 1.9oz/sqyd (70 Denier) ripstop nylon. The silicone coated parachute makes the parachute waterproof on both sides and is lighter than standard polyurethane coated chutes.

The waterproofing ensures that the chute opens even if soaked in water or rain. All seams are sewn with nylon bonded thread using a durable 5-thread safety lock stitch, overcasting and finished with a clean seam. The shroud lines consist of MIL-C-5040 Type 1A military survival cord at a mere 1/16" in diameter yet has a tensile strength of 100lbs per line. Three reinforced xxx lines, using MIL-C-5040 Type 2A military survival cord, complete the chute at the top for easy in-line connection to weather balloon assemblies or rocket nose cone trains.


Step 6: Radar Reflector

In order for planes to see your balloon, you will need to construct a radar reflector. This is made from cardboard and foil tape and can be relatively inexpensive. I followed edjez's instructable. You can find it here:

Step 7: Camera - A800 Canon

The camera is a really important part of the project because it will document the trip to near space. Many people opt for the GoPro 2 HD video camera which is especially made to handle harsh conditions and hard falls, but since I don't have that much money to spend I brought a regular off the shelf camera from Canon. 

This is a 10 MP camera which you can easily order from But how will it take pictures by itself? That's where CHDK comes in. CHDK stands for Canon Hack Development Kit. It won't hurt your camera (don't trust me).

There's some great tutorials online about how to get CHDK up and running. You must order an SD card that is greater than 4GB in order to get as many pictures as possible. You will want to run the intervalometer for at least 10 second intervals.  This will give you about 2000 photos of the flight. Now, I will remind you that this are photos. If you want a video, I would recommend getting the GoPro. 

Step 8: Take Your HAM Test

Ham radio is the best way of getting in contact with your balloon. The MicroTrak All-In-One Ham beacon is a telemetry device which emits a radio pulse containing its current location.  These pulses are picked up by digipeaters, special receiving devices placed on top of mountains and other high places specifically to listen for these APRS packets and then put them online.  Consequentially, the MicroTrak's path can be viewed online at websites such as Google Aprs.

Getting a license is not too difficult.  The best place to start is by finding a Ham club near you.  They will provide you will all the information and assistance you need to get licensed.  If you do not know of any groups in your area, simply learn by taking the practice exam here:  By testing yourself you can determine what you do not know, and pursue that knowledge through the internet, books readily available at a local library or to purchase, or other hams.

Once you are ready you will have to find an exam session (  These are offered multiple times a year in various locations across the United States.  You will only need to take the test for the lowest license class: Technician.  This 35 question multiple choice test and a nominal fee (~$10) will get you your license and a call sign.

Step 9: Purchase the MicroTrak

Simply place an order at the Byonics website:  You want the MicroTrak AIO version 2, the one with the rubber duck antenna.  Do not get a mag-mount antenna. 

            When you place your order, give Byonics your ham radio call sign, and if you want, an SSID number 1 to 12 which would differentiate your beacon if you are using more than one with the same call sign (Ex:  KJ6MOT-2 or KJ6MOT-11).

I also found that the rubber duck antenna did not transmit the signal very well. I opted for a high altitude dipole antenna from Byonics. This was great for our flight. We mounted it on the side of the payload, and everything worked out great.

UCSD near space has some pretty good details on the MicroTrak as well as some other great resources.

Step 10: PocketFinder

Redundancy, Redundancy, Redundancy. This is the magic law in any balloon project. For that reason, you will want to pick out a secondary tracker. You will probably want to pick a tracker that uses a different technology than your primary. For instance, we had a HAM radio as our primary tracker, and a 3G/Cellular GPS for the secondary. 

This 3G/Cellular tracker is called the PocketFinder. It's a small Oreo™ shaped object that transmits its position to You'll want ro order it with 2 months free tracking. This is pretty beneficial. The instructions are pretty simple, but make sure you have it working before you put it in the balloon. 

The PocketFinder is pretty accurate as you can see from the image below. This is a screenshot on my iPhone from the actual place where we found the payload in a 60 foot tall tree. The parachute and radar reflector are still stuck there, so if you want to go get it for me, that would be great. Just kidding. 

Step 11: Payload Box

To keep everything warm, you'll want to get a good box. This can generally be made out of anything but you'll want to get something cheap. We purchased a 22 quart styrofoam cooler from WalMart that usually holds drinks. These are disposable, and they can usually be found in the Lunch Box / Cold Box isle. If you don't find it at WalMart, go to your local super market or Walgreens. We found them there too. 

You'll need to cut a few holes in the side for the camera, and pack some extra space for everything. 

Step 12: Rope

The rope is going to be a very important part of the project. It will carry everything to near space. It also cannot have a break force of greater than 50lbs. We got some Everbilt 3/16 in. x 50 ft. Braided Nylon & Polypropylene Rope from the Home Depot. We bought 2 packages.

Step 13: Heat Packs

You'll want to keep everything warm as the box goes up into near space. You'll be above 99% percent of the atmosphere by mass and it gets cold up there. Preferably, you will need chemical heat packs which don't require air to be heated. However, we couldn't find these, so we stuck with heat packs at a small store in New York. You can get these online or at your local hardware store. You'll put these packs next to the camera, MicroTrak AIO, and the PocketFinder. 

Step 14: Knots

There are a couple knots that you'll want to familiarize yourself with. These will help you knot everything on launch day. The first knot is called the Double Fisherman's knot. This helps for joining the balloon to the top of the parachute, and any other ropes that need to be joined. It is almost imposible to untie, and thats why we used it in our project. This video below shows you how to tie the double fisherman knot. It's pretty simple, and you can probably master it with a couple practices. 

The other knot you'll want to know is the box sling. This is the knot that goes around the payload box, and connects it to the main flight string by a double fisherman knot.

Step 15: Miscellaneous

Sign (4 copies) - We made a sign with our telephone numbers and a $50 reward if found note. Although we didn't need it, it's good to have. Print out four copies and tape it to each side of the box. 
Extra tape and rope - just in case you need some.
Latex gloves ~10 - When handling the balloon, be sure you never touch it with your hands. That will weaken the structure. 
Tarp - you'll need a plastic tarp from Home Depot. These are usually used for painting. You don't want the balloon to hit anything when you're filling it up. 
Hiking boots - you're going to be going through woods and mountain, make sure you bring some. 
Heat packs - I talked about these in Step 13. 
Extra lithium batteries - you never know if one of your batteries is going to be a dud. 
Hand-held radios - when you're trying to search for the balloon, you may need hand held radios to communicate. 
Water - stay hydrated!
Maps/phones/gps/internet - for locating the balloon upon landing.
Screw drivers/wrenches/pliers/scissors
A hose - you can find a hose at Home Depot that will allow you to connect the balloon to the Helium Tank. You can fit your own regulator if you have one, but it is better to fill the balloon away from the tank. This is a clear 1 inch plastic tubing used in plumbing. There's more information on this in Step 19. 
Scale - you will need a scale to weigh your anchor for 2lbs of extra lift for a 200ft/m ascent rate. 

Step 16: Batteries

For everything that needs a AA battery, like the Canon camera and the Microtrak, you'll want to get yourself at least 12 AA lithium batteries. They usually comes in a blue package. Let me remind you, these are lithium and not lithium-ion.

Lithium batteries work in extreme cold condition, which you will be facing in near space. 

Step 17: Education

Do some research on near space and things that other people have done. Know the timing of the balloon. Typical flights take about 2 hours. Here's some information on the timing of the flight. Unless you get the high altitude version of the MicroTrak, it will only work under 60,000 feet.

Step 18: Helium Rental

It's going to be really hard to find some helium for rental. Many people use hydrogen because it is cheaper. Do not use hydrogen! It's explosive! Currently, there is a world shortage of helium, so try your best to call a few stores. We got ours from Bayview Balloons in Connecticut. They weren't too nice to us, so I don't recommend you to go there. Use google maps and search for helium suppliers in your area. You should get about $150 for 250 cubic feet of helium. You will only need about 100 cubic feet depending on your balloon size. The 600g ballon requires 50-100 cubic feet. 

Do your best!

Step 19: Launch and Retrieval

Here's the procedure we used for launch. Try your best to follow what it says. Everything should make sense if you have all the materials. Ignore the "!" after every sentence, i'm not sure why those are there...

While in car, turn on MicroTrak and PocketFinder and start recording coordinates.
1. Arrive at location. Fold out table and chairs.!
2. Place plastic tarp on ground next to table. Place weights on end end of the tarp to
prevent movement by the wind.!
3. Take helium tank out of car and place tank sideways on ground next to tarp.!
4. Place payload box on tarp with parachute.!
9. Unscrew helium tank cap.!
10.Attach hose or similar apparatus to the helium tank regulator.!
11. Stretch hose so it lays halfway on the tarp.!
12.Attach rope to hose about 10 inches from open end of hose. !
13.This rope is then connected to a pull scale that is anchored to the ground.!
14.Hand out latex gloves for those who are holding the weather balloon during inflation.
Two people will be underneath the balloon. Two or three people will be holding the
side of the balloon to make sure that the wind does not move it. Make sure no one is
wearing shark objects such as watches, eye glasses, or highly gelled hair.!
15.Take balloon out of package being sure to not stretch the balloon.!
16.Lay it out on the tarp and locate the open end. Place hose or similar apparatus 10
inches inside the open end of the balloon. Place two zip ties and one tied off rope
around the neck of the balloon that is on the hose to prevent air from leaking out.!
17. Start helium flow to the balloon. Make sure to encourage air flow inside balloon.!
18.Once the balloon has been inflated, read the scale to determine if there is 6lbs of lift.!
19. Once there is 6lbs of lift, tie off the balloon.!
20. With the balloon still connected to the hose, take two pieces of 3ft string. Take the
first piece and wrap it around the back side of the neck. Draw the length until they
are equal. Make an x and loop the higher string through the other string. Position the
string so it is about 7 inches from the end of the balloon. Bring each side of the string
back around them balloon. Repeat this x pattern until the string covered 13mm of e
neck. Make a final knot. !
21.Remove the balloon from the nozzle and hook it to the anchor.!
22.Take you other piece of trying and wrap it around the balloon just as before. Bend
the neck of the balloon so it overlaps the previous tie. Repeat the same process of
tying the balloon as before. !
23.Tie the top of the parachute to the bottom of the balloon, with the ends of the rope
hanging off. !
24.Attach the rope to the top of the parachute.!
5. Open lid and place gps, camera running CHDK, hand warmers inside box. Make
sure all devices are turned on, but camera is not running. !
6. Close and tape lid shut.!
7. Tie two box sling knots around the box.!
8. Attach two of the box sling strings to the parachute hook, and the other two strings to
the rope of the parachute.!
25.Apparatus should be complete.!
26. Press the shutter button on the camera and confirm that the camera is taking
pictures every 30 seconds. !
27. Confirm that he GPS devices are transmitting.!
28. Remove the balloon from the anchor and make sure the payload does not leave the

Let it go!

Step 20: Conclusion

"We're making space more American. We're making space more democratic. We're making space more available, approachable and real to the average American."  - James Muncy, President of Polispace

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