Maker Interview: EMS Near Space Balloon Team

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I am excited to present the third and final “Meet the Makers” interview! Please read it and get pumped-up for the fast-approaching Eugene Mini Maker Faire on June 11th.  It’s on the horizon!

The Eugene Maker Space has conceived of, and succeeded in, a whole host of amazing projects since its inception in 2010. The focus of this interview is no exception.  Today I am interviewing Rick Osgood who is a member of the recently formed Near Space Ballon Team at EMS.

Jeffrey: Who started the near space balloon team and what were their reasons for doing so?

Rick: I started the team. I was looking for a way to get people working together at Eugene Maker Space. I also wanted to find a project that was interesting enough to hopefully draw in new potential maker space members. I had launched two of these balloons in the past, but not since I moved to Oregon almost six years ago. What I love about this type of project is that you can divide it up into separate components and then assign each of those components to a different team member. This makes it a naturally good team project and I figured it would be a perfect fit. Another great thing about the nearspace balloon project is that the payload can be modified and launched over and over again, meaning that the team can evolve over time and eventually be run by an entirely different group of people.

Jeffrey: Can anyone join the team?

Rick: Yes! Anyone can join the nearspace team. It doesn’t matter what skills you already possess. We are all learning new things by participating in this project. The whole point is to get more people involved in making cool things at the Eugene Maker Space. If anyone is interested, they can feel free to contact me at Rick@RichardOsgood.com.

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J: What is the goal of the project?

R: We have several goals. First of all, we want to reach an altitude high enough to be considered near space. Second, we want to take high definition photographs of the curvature of the Earth. Third, we want to take high quality video from near space. Finally, we need to be able to track and recover the payload once it lands back on Earth.

J: How high will the balloon go?

R: Ideally, we would send this thing into space. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. The next best thing is what is referred to as “near space”. Near space is considered to start at about 65,000 feet above sea level. It’s the point at which the air pressure gets so low that your blood would begin to boil. You would need a space suit to survive above this altitude. It is also the point where the sky becomes black and you can begin to see the curvature of the Earth. So that’s our minimum goal. We want to reach as high as possible, but I’ll consider the project a success if we reach at least 65,000 feet. Based on my past experience, I expect to reach somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 feet.

J: How will you keep track of the balloon when it’s in the air?

R: The simple version of the answer is with a GPS tracker and a radio. The balloon will have a small GPS module so it will know its own location at all times. It will then use a radio modem to convert the GPS data into an audio signal, which will then be transmitted over the radio. We will have a radio receiver on the ground hooked up to a computer running special GPS tracking software. This will allow us to keep track of the balloon’s location and altitude in real time. Our current plan is to use amateur radio and APRS to track the balloon. APRS is an old standard for sending digital data using a ham radio. It’s primarily used for GPS tracking, so it perfectly suits our needs.

Once the balloon is launched, it will begin to rise upward, but it will also move horizontally. The chase team will have to load up the caravan immediately after launch in order to chase the balloon to ensure a safe recovery. If the payload lands in a canyon or forest, we may lose radio signal. Therefore, it’s important that we try to have visual contact with the payload as it falls.

J: What are some of the engineering challenges that come along with a project like this.

R: There are many challenges with designing a near space balloon. We are basically designing a satellite. 

Before we even launch the balloon, we need to know where we will launch from. This means we need to make predictions about what path the balloon will take and where it will likely land. You have to consider the ascent rate of the balloon as well as the descent rate. You also need to know at roughly what altitude you expect the balloon to burst, which depends on the size of the balloon as well as how much you fill it. We can use prediction software to plug all of these numbers in and it will give us an idea of where the balloon will travel from any given launch point. We have to avoid restricted airspace like airports. We also want to ensure the balloon will land somewhere that is not too populated for safety reasons, but also somewhere that we can actually get to it. A lake or a mountain would be a bad landing location.

Once that’s figured out, we move to the launch. Launching a balloon like this is tricky because it’s huge. It will start out about five or six feet in diameter. That requires a lot of helium and a special filling mechanism. If it gets windy, the balloon may blow over and pop. If you touch the balloon with your bare hands, the oils from your fingers can weaken the material and cause it to burst at a lowr altitude. So we have to wear special cotton gloves when handling the balloon. These balloons and the helium that goes inside are expensive. We don’t want to waste anything.

Once the balloon is in the air, we’ll need to track the balloon as well as take photos and video from a very high altitude. It gets very cold up there, so we need to be sure our electronic systems can survive in that type of extreme environment. If the tracking system fails, we are basically screwed. Also, we can’t just use anything to track the balloon. There are FCC and FAA regulations that dictate what we can or cannot use. For example, we are not allowed to operate a cell phone from inside the payload once the payload leaves the ground. That means we can’t just throw a cell phone in there for tracking.

Assuming the tracking system works perfectly, we need to ensure the payload doesn’t just smash into a hundred pieces once it hits the ground. This means we need a functional parachute and the chassis needs to be strong enough to survive the impact and keep the electronic components safe.

These are just some of the high level challenges we face in designing a near space balloon. Each challenge tends to have its own mini problems that must be solved as well. We learn a lot in solving these problems!

J: How do you manage a project like this?

R: I’ve been coordinating things mainly via email, though if the team gets any larger we may need to setup a forum or mailing list to make it easier to stay in touch. We also have a wiki page on the Eugene Maker Space wiki to help keep track of project tasks and goals. We meet regularly at the maker space on Saturdays to help keep things moving and on track.

I’ve also broken down the project into several components. Examples include the balloon itself, the parachute and recovery system, the tracking system, and the payload chassis. Each component is managed by a different team member. That team member is in charge of their component and has final say on design decisions, but is welcome to accept help from other team members so we can all be involved.

J: I wish you success in your endeavors.

R: Thanks!

Meet members of the EMS Nearspace Balloon Team and see more than 30 other projects at the Eugene Mini Maker Faire on June 11! Get your tickets in advance or buy them at the door.

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