Every year it's the same old same old, dress up, dress the kids, battle the lines, pay some photographer a fortune to try and make your family not look like they just stepped out of an 80's glamour shots studio to prepare your iconic Christmas card. It's important because you have to make sure that everyone on your mail list knows that your family is still pretty and intact.
Well last year I forgot to get online and upload my Christmas photos to send out a card. I realized it too late and hoped my wife wouldn't realize it. She did..... Soooo this year I'm going to create the most epic Christmas card in the history of mankind!!
Step 1: Planning
Ok so I decided that I would take a photo from a near space balloon and use it as our Christmas picture. I've launched numerous balloons so it should be fairly straight forward. I needed to figure out the perfect photo. Should it be professional? Should we hire a photographer? Hell no!
I decided that we should find cheesy holiday attire and I would get some staged pictures of everyone in the family (including the cat) and send them up. I figured if I could make it look like we were floating it would add to the cheesy/awesome factor. Soooo that's what I did.
I planned the shoot then adjusted for time to print the pictures, cut them out and also attach them to the balloon.
Let's go through the whole process from supplies all the way through to sending out my cards of awesomeness!
Step 2: Supplies
Ok so there's 4 different parts to making an epic Christmas card.
1.) Family Portraits
2.) Balloon assembly and launch
3.) Balloon retrieval
4.) Post processing and card creation
Instead of listing everything in one section, I'll start each section with supplies used. There's no one right way to do this matter of fact I had to wing it MOST of the time.
Step 3: Family Portarits
Taking family pictures is almost always a huge pain in the rear. Luckily when you tell your kids they need to wear cheesy sweaters, Santa hats and act like fools, they can't wait!
When taking the photos I decided on a green screen background because I figured it would make processing the pictures easier. As it turned out, I was wrong. Based on how I ended up printing the pictures, it didn't really matter what I used but a uniform background is always easier when working with photoshop.
- green screen (or white or black)
- cheesy Christmas clothing
- photographic odds and ends such as flashes, remote triggers, blah blah blah
- photo editing software
- printer and photo paper if you're printing at home
- thin styrofoam for picture support
- glue stick
- carbon fiber rods (small wood dowels would work also)
- hot glue gun
This part is easy. Simply put up your backdrop, set your camera and have your kids, your wife and yourself make silly poses. Because I knew I was sending these into the stratosphere I wanted everyone to look like they were floating.
As far as camera settings, whatever you like...
Once your happy with your pictures then it's on to processing them. I ended up using adobe photoshop to remove the background from each individual photo and then place them all on a single 8x10 frame that had a black background. I would print one then change how I had everyone and then print another until I was happy with the positioning.
Once the pictures have been printed you need to cut them out. Use small sharp scissors and take your time. Once the pictures have been cut, trace out over the thin styrofoam sheets and cut support structures slightly smaller than the photo. This will serve as a support for the photos while they are drifting to altitude since photo paper is not that sturdy.... Use the glue stick sparingly to attach the foam to the photos.
Once the supports are dry then arrange the photos how ever you like and attach the carbon fiber rods between them. Allow space for a longer rod that will attach to the balloon.
Step 4: Balloon Assembly/Launch
To launch a weather balloon you need a number of things. It's actually easier than you think to launch one but it does take preparation and some expense. There are a number of different ways to design a payload box/frame so I will not go into the box construction but I will go over what I used for the launch.
What you will need to launch a weather balloon:
- a weather balloon (no s**t right?) I like 1200 or 1600 gram balloons which can be purchased at www.highaltitudescience.com or www.highaltitudescience.com Always buy 2 just in case something happens to one of them the day of launch.
- Helium (or hydrogen) Helium is getting expensive so hydrogen is a much cheaper alternative. Some people freak out about how volatile it is but it's as safe as you make it. I use a 250 cuft helium tank to make sure I always have enough.
- Weather Balloon inflator (high altitude science)
- Styrofoam box (or whatever you want to use as a payload carrier). I like styrofoam, it keeps the hot stuff hot and the cold stuff cold! In other words, it's a great insulator. It gets REALLY cold at 100,000 feet.
- Camera (s) - I use gopros
- Camera Battery extenders - trust me, you'll need them. There's nothing worse than a perfect flight then you realize your battery shut off before the balloon bursts.
- Flight computer (optional) - I like knowing how high, how fast and how cold it was during my launches so I use the eagle flight computer from highaltitudescience.com. It's a beast and very accurate and reliable.
- GPS (NOT OPTIONAL - unless you don't want to find your payload...) - I use a SPOT gen3 GPS unit with every flight. It is accurate, reliable and the batteries seem to last forever. It does require a yearly subscription but it's worth it. I have also used the SPOT trace which is cheaper and works just as well, it's also lighter.
- Bright Flashing LED (optional) - if you launch at night or if any part of your flight is after civil twilight, you are required by law (in the US) to have a flashing light that can be seen 5 miles away. If you're launching during the day then you don't need one.
- Parachute - only if you want your stuff to survive. You can get one at highaltitudescience.com or spherachutes or fruitychutes or just make your own. You really need to know the descent rate in order to predict landing.
- Paracord or thick string - this is used to make the balloon train (ie the connection between basket and parachute and parachute to balloon.
- Fish Scale
- batteries, micro SD cards, computer, etc....
First thing you need to do is construct your foam box or frame. I like to wrap mine with reflective silver tape which you can pick up at home depot or Lowes. Cut out spots for the cameras and trial fit everything. You need to place your pictures in front of the cameras with some sort of stick. I hung mine from the top with carbon fiber rods. I have used wooden dowels and arrow shafts in the past and it all works fine. Whichever method works for you is great. I will frame the shot using the gopro app and play with settings until I know what distance and angle I need to get the best shot. After you know all that, attach your photos to the balloon.
Once you have everything you will need for the balloon launch you will need to WEIGH EVERYTHING without the balloon. This includes EVERYTHING that will be lifted by the balloon including parachute, batteries, cameras, cords, strings, everything! This is important to figure out how much helium you need to take the payload to specific altitude and also it's vital for predicting where the balloon will land.
Once you know the exact weight of your payload then you need to find out what the descent rate is based on the parachute size. You can google "parachute descent rate calculator" and it will take you to some good sites that will help you figure out what the rate is in m/s. After you have the figured out the descent rate then log onto HABHUB.ORG. HabHub is the best site for calculating ascent rates based on weight and also will give you a projected flight path and landing predictor.
After logging on to HABHUB, select Burst Calculator. Once there, put in your payload mass in GRAMS (you just weighed it a minute ago....). After that select the size of your balloon, if you know the manufacturer great, if not just select the correct size. Once you have payload mass and balloon size you can either select a preferred burst ALTITUDE or a preferred ASCENT rate. I always use the target ASCENT, mainly because if it goes up too slow you can travel 100's of miles to retrieve the payload. I will range between 4 and 5 m/s for ascent. Once you have that info entered it will spit out some numbers. The MOST IMPORTANT number you need is the NECK LIFT!! WRITE THAT VALUE DOWN!!! Again the most important number is the NECK LIFT!! This is the value you will use in the field when inflating the balloon to make sure you hit close to your target prediction.
After you have all of the info from the burst calculator and the descent rate from the parachute then go back to the HABHUB main page and click on LANDING PREDICTOR. Move around on the map until you find your location, more specifically the location where you will be launching your balloon. You need to set your location by clicking on the "set with map" button. You can then click on the map and set your GPS coordinates for the launch site. After you set your launch location, then simply fill in the form with the information you have previously recorded from the burst calculator. The date is obvious and the time is UTC. UTC can be easily figured out in your location with a simple google search. For central time zone it is CST + 6 hours, so for 1200 noon it will be 1800 UTC and so on.... Once you have all the variables plugged in simply hit the run prediction button and the program will tell you how far the balloon will travel, where it will burst and about where it will land. It's easy to use and amazingly accurate!
Now that you have all of your info, it's time to schedule your launch! Before you can launch a weather balloon you need to call the FAA and file a NOTAM (notice to airmen). That makes it all legal and if you bring down a passenger jet you wont feel so guilty.... I won't go into great detail on filing but here's what you do in a nut shell. If you're unsure of how to figure out your VOR location, ask a pilot friend.
Call - 1-877-487-6867
When they answer tell them you're filing a NOTAM for a weather balloon (or you can say High Ball if you're feeling studdly). It's hit or miss if you get someone that knows what the hell you're talking about so I begin the conversation with: "This is Cool Science, LLC filing a NOTAM for a High Ball. Launch date xxx and time of xxx UTC. Location of launch is 6 miles off radial 278 of xxx VOR. Time to 60,000 feet is (calculate your ascent rate/ 60,000 feet and give them the time to that altitude based on your launch time). They need this because no commercial planes fly above 60,000 feet. I then describe the size and color of the balloon, color of the parachute and the color and size of the payload. I then tell them the time and location of landing site." They will then proceed to ask you some questions for clarification and if you're unsure simply ask them to help, they are actually quite helpful and most have never filed one before either. They will then give you a NOTAM number and you're good to launch (at least legally).
Now that you have your NOTAM, it's time to go out to the field. I have launched balloon alone and have had helper, it's always best to have at least one extra set of hands to make it easier.
For launching there is are great detailed instructions on www.highaltitudescience.com, but in a nut shell... Setup the balloon train out on the ground and make sure everything is on. It really sucks if your cameras go to 100k feet but aren't recording. Make absolutely sure your GPS is on. Check it twice (did you catch the Santa pun?). Slowly inflate the balloon until it lifts out of your helpers hands. Once the balloon lifts on it's own attach the fish scale to it. Here's the part that you need to know the neck lift. Continue to fill the balloon and watch the scale until it's 100 grams LESS than the calculated lift. So if it calls for 2500 grams of lift, STOP filling the balloon at 2400 BECAUSE the inflator weighs about 100 grams so this should be factored in.
Now that it's inflated, LET IT GO!! If it's the first time you've launched a weather balloon it's both a sinking and exciting feeling. You wonder "did I turn the cameras on? Is the GPS working? Were those really fresh batteries? etc... Now you can track your balloon with the Spot app which SHOULD give you updates every 5 - 10 minutes or so. The Spot GEN 3 will transmit up to 80,000 feet so once you lose signal you know it's beyond that altitude. Once you pick up the signal again, it's time to plane retrieval! You can either retrieve it at a later date or follow the GPS signal and get it immediately.
Now go get it...
Step 5: Balloon / Payload Recovery
Now to find the payload.
Once your balloon has landed on earth you should have received signals from your GPS. Some people follow the signals like storm chasers others, like me, will wait until the next day. It rarely lands in an area that is easy to get to or get through so dress accordingly. I always wear jeans, boots, long sleeve shirt and have gloves with me.
Plan on traveling up to 100+ miles one way depending on how the jet stream is where you launch. The spot GPS is great about showing fairly precisely where it lands. Depending on conditions the GPS location will be dead accurate or it may throw the signal up to 30 yards which is still pretty good.
Here's what I carry in my retrieval box.
1.) Drone - I use a DJI phantom to spot from the sky. If your balloon lands in a heavily wooded area or thicket then the DJI is invaluable at helping you locate it. This is the main reason I go for bright obnoxious color for my parachute and also the payload box, it really stands out against a green or brown background.
2.) Chainsaw - Trust me, if you travel 120 miles and you find your payload in a tree, you may have to cut it down!
3.) Kids sized bow and arrow - I like to modify the arrow with a screw at the front to add weight. This is amazingly useful if it's up in a tree. I tie thin fishing string around the back of the arrow and shoot it over the payload and/or branch it sits on. Once the arrow comes back down, I tie a thicker string or small rope to the fishing line and loop it around the branch and then yank it until the payload falls.
4.) Fishing pole - Same thought as the bow and arrow just for lower lying branches that are easily reached with a good cast. I simply put regular weights on the end to loop around the branch.
5.) $100 bills - This is bribery money. If your payload lands in the sticks and you have to tell a landowner you're going to cut his tree down to retrieve a box full of electronics, a couple hundred dollars is cheaper than picking buckshot out of your backside.
It's a good idea to contact the landowner once you find the payload before jumping a fence and trespassing. Down where I live, a lot of people dream of the opportunity to shoot at trespassers. I have found that most landowners will be a little confused at first but then get actually more excited than you do about finding it once they realize what you're doing. Most will even bust out a tractor, ladder, chainsaw or whatever you need to retrieve it. Most of them just want to see a sample of the final product, it makes them feel like they have been part of something unique. If you can't readily find the landowner and you've traveled a long distance, the best thing to do is contact the local sheriffs department and tell them what you are doing. They are always helpful and can easily find the owner if not escort you onto the property.
Once you've found your payload, it's time to download your videos! It's like opening a treasure chest!!
Step 6: Post Processing / Card Creation
Now that you have your video(s), it's time to watch! It's a little stressful pulling the cards and hoping there something on them. Once you know you have footage, there's nothing better.
The first card I pull is the Eagle Flight Computer SD. I load it to see how long, how high and how fast. It's printed in a text format so you have to translate the data a bit but it's not difficult.
Load your gopro cards and go to town. I like to scroll through until right before burst and extract a high quality frame from the video. Once I have the photos I like I then bring them back into Photoshop and tweak them a little including removing the carbon fiber rods from the pictures.
You now have EPIC photos to put in your next Christmas Card!!
Logon to one of the numerous Photo processing sites and create your Christmas card!!
Step 7: Compilation Video of Flight
I like to make a compilation video of different altitudes of the flight. You can end up with hours and hours of video footage. Go through, select about 2-3 minutes total of small 5 seconds clips with emphasis on the burst. This just adds a little more awesomeness to the project.
Runner Up in the
Brave the Elements 2016