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Australian Student Balloon Rises 100,000 Feet, With a Digital Camera 174

hype7 writes "An Australian student at Deakin University had a fascinating idea for a final project — to send a balloon up 100,000ft (~30,000 metres) into the stratosphere with a digital camera attached. The university was supportive, and the project took shape. Although there were some serious hitches along the way, the project was successful, and he managed to retrieve the balloon — with the pictures. What's really amazing is that the total cost was so low; the most expensive part was buying the helium gas for approximately AUD$250 (~USD$200)."
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Australian Student Balloon Rises 100,000 Feet, With a Digital Camera

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  • Altitude (Score:5, Funny)

    by White Flame ( 1074973 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:13PM (#29765467)

    See, you can get a lot higher up without a kid inside.

    • Re:Altitude (Score:5, Funny)

      by courteaudotbiz ( 1191083 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:16PM (#29765477) Homepage
      But you get fewer press coverage without the kid...
    • Re:Altitude (Score:5, Informative)

      by stillpixel ( 1575443 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:31PM (#29765559) Homepage Journal
      Wasn't something similar to this reported about a month or two ago? oh yeah!

      Always interesting to see the twists applied to previous attempts at the same task.. I know what idea I'm putting in my 6 yr old's mind for his first science fair....

      • Re:Altitude (Score:5, Funny)

        by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:39PM (#29765601) Journal
        I know what I'm putting my 6 yr old inside for his last science fair...
      • Re:Reported before (Score:4, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:48PM (#29765637)

        ...and even more amazing is that at about 800 sites around the world, various national weather services do this same thing twice daily. Oh and they have been doing it at least since the 1950's.

        100,000 feet is nothing special. They regularly go higher than that.

        Anyhow, this is how most of the atmospheric layer and wind information is obtained --- not by satellite.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by node 3 ( 115640 )

          Anyhow, this is how most of the atmospheric layer and wind information is obtained --- not by satellite.

          Seems like it would've been easier to put little propellers on the satellites to measure the wind than to have to fly a balloon every day.

          And before anyone replies, yes, this is a joke. I know this wouldn't work, since the little propellers would fly the satellites off course...

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 16, 2009 @08:54AM (#29767565)

          I estimate 10 million of these balloons have been launched with sensing instruments and radio telemetry. (Twice a day, more than 50 years, 800 sites currently but hundreds since the 1960's= 2x50x365x400 = more than 10 M). There is nothing very interesting about these students doing it.

          These camera stories are kind of "eye-candy" science: pleasing to look at but not much substance. There is no trick to launching a balloon with a camera attached... and apart from being outright fun, there isn't any research advancement either into atmospherics or into the engineering technology of launching an instrument package with a balloon. They even do it the easy (safe) way with helium instead of hydrogen. BTW, this is kind of wasteful. Helium is a scarce resource.

          The current telemetry packages attached to the weather balloons contain a telemetry transmitter, a GPS receiver, and humidity/temperature sensors. This provides wind speed, direction, altitude, location, temperature, and humidity.

          Now, if the students did something interesting such as:

          1. Adding in a light weight low-cost stabilizer and remote control package to steady and aim the camera
          2. Modify the camera with filters to observe a parameter that is not usually measured (ie: perhaps infrared, uv, etc)
          3. Attach a laser and test out a methodology for measuring parameters within a range of the balloon
          4. Create a 360 scanning system and analyze the images in real time to provide cloud formation information
          5. Created a wireless grid that co-ordinated and measured information from multiple synchronous balloon launces in the same relative area
          6. or something else creative, imaginative, and useful

          THEN this would be an interesting story. Else just fluff.

          If /. publishes another "student loses camera attached to stupid weather balloon" then I'm going to start submitting pictures of our pets. "Man uses $1000 camera to take thousands of pictures of children and dogs".

          • by pnewhook ( 788591 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:34AM (#29767865)

            Wow - what a complainer. Sure it's not that novel, but still cool and you just have to shit all over it. He built his own microcontroller system - that's not that trivial.

            As for your suggestions:

            1) a stabilizer would either drain the batteries or freeze up with the low temperatures. Adding complexity with little benefit does not make it better

            2) might be interesting. IR might just show that the earth is warmer than space. Ooooo now there's science!

            3) sure, put lasers on a balloon that can fly into airline flight paths. Now that's safe.

            4) real time image analysis. You do realize what the computing capabilities of a microcontroller are, don't you?

            5) why implement the complexity of a wireless grid? Just launch several balloons all time stamped and you can process the data later. Again, needless complexity doesn't make it better, it just makes the probability of failure much higher and drives up the cost exponentially.

            6) something useful? How about a big floating sign saying ACs don't have a freaking clue what they are talking about?

        • by schon ( 31600 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @10:14AM (#29768269)

          Australian Student Balloon Rises 100,000 Feet, With a Digital Camera

          they have been doing it at least since the 1950's

          Umm, yeah, I'm gonna need a citation on that.

      • Re:Altitude (Score:4, Interesting)

        by JWSmythe ( 446288 ) <> on Friday October 16, 2009 @12:54AM (#29765899) Homepage Journal

            I say send a UAV up with it. Float it up, and then see how far you can fly/glide from 100k feet. :)

            Ahh, the ways we could piss off the FAA. I know some of the regulations, and that's half of why I haven't built half the stuff I want to. :)

        • by igny ( 716218 )
          I say, send a cannon [] up with it. And then see how far it can shoot. Can it miss Earth from up there?
          • Re:Altitude (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Profane MuthaFucka ( 574406 ) <> on Friday October 16, 2009 @01:47AM (#29766051) Homepage Journal

            No, it can't miss Earth from up there. I just did the calculations. At 20 miles up, that adds only 32187 meters to the radius of the Earth. Working through the math, it means that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.7 m/s^2.

            At sea level, the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s^2.

            Thus, sea level escape velocity is 11201 meters per second
            Escape velocity at 20 miles up is 11152 meters per second.

            The difference is 49 meters per second, or 110 MPH.

            Now, to pick a gun at random, let's choose the US Army's M198 Howitzer. It's an artillery piece that fires projectiles at approximately 760 meters per second. So you need to have a much bigger cannon, and a much bigger balloon.

            • Re:Altitude (Score:5, Interesting)

              by Gulthek ( 12570 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:14AM (#29767709) Homepage Journal

              Yes! A comment about escape velocity. Now I can shoehorn in a really cool fact about Deimos (moon of Mars): it's escape velocity is 20 km/h (13 MPH)!

              You could run, jump, and orbit around the thing like Mario in Super Mario Galaxy. That is awesome.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by MarcQuadra ( 129430 )

              Just a question from my idle mind... Is escape velocity usually about the same as the lateral velocity of an object in a perfect orbit?

              I'm thinking this because the ISS is 350km up, and moves at just over 7,700m/sec.

              It seems to make sense that to 'fall around' something, you would have to move 'to the side' just as much as you're 'pulled in' over any given time.

        • that's been done by a hobbyist years ago. Incredibly cool project. can't seem to find it now, i read an extensive website about it years ago. Some kid and his brother spent years building an airframe, and pack a gps and embedded computer that steers the plane back "home", 2-way radio modem, camera, the lot. Someone post the link please
          •     I may have seen the same thing, except it was a concept when I saw it. They had done the balloon trip a few times, and the airplane was their next plan. I didn't know that they had done it. Unfortunately, I don't have the link either.

        • by Animaether ( 411575 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @06:28AM (#29766963) Journal

          Ahh, the ways we could piss off the FAA. I know some of the regulations, and that's half of why I haven't built half the stuff I want to.

          Not too sure about Australia, but here in NL we have much the same regulations.

          If I were to 'do the right thing' and write to the aviation authorities here saying I intend to let loose a big ol' helium balloon capable of reaching 30,000 feet and higher, with a digital camera attached, they would smack me down citing all sorts of safety regulations (camera into jet engine = potential loss of engine power and all that.. they tend to be less squishy than birds - which do enough damage as it is).

          But if I were to 'just do it', I get to have a fun project, a great experience, and possibly awesome results to share with friends and indeed the world. Last, but not least, very little chance that the authorities would come after me after-the-fact (unless the thing -did- get sucked into some jet engine or otherwise disrupted air traffic).

          The same applies to ventures into abandoned factories, for example. It's not your land, not your property, you're legally trespassing and if caught the owner will probably tell you to get the hell off of his property.. but you'll already have the experience of going there, maybe photos, etc. If you were to write first, you've got odds against you.. if the owner says 'sure, go ahead', and you get into an accident at the site, they'll be liable.. odds are, thus, that you'll get a big fat "no, you may not go onto my property".

          Rules may not be meant to be broken, but life tends to be more interesting when you do break them.

      • Re:Altitude (Score:4, Informative)

        by FatdogHaiku ( 978357 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @01:10AM (#29765953)
        I don't see why ANY of this is a big deal. Joe Kittinger RODE a balloon up over 100,000 and then jumped out, with cameras rolling. OK, they weren't digital cameras, and the whole job cast a lot more than $200. but it was back in the 60's...

        During the test his suit leaked but he kept going []
        Video here: []
      • Yeah the twist on this one versus the others was that this crew boofed it and got basically zero good pictures by accidentally setting the shutterspeed to 1600. Still cool, wouldn't mind doing one myself. But really shows that it's important to pay attention when launching things into space.
    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      That little balloon in the states couldn't have lifted at all with a child inside. Somebody should have realized that.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by LaZZaR ( 216092 )

        I thought the same thing as well.
        I'm in Australia, even the people here are calling it a publicity stunt, although, if thats true then I don't understand the actual benefit the family gets with the publicity... aren't they described as a "crackpot" family?

    • by dh0dges ( 910735 )
      I call BS on the "kid on balloon" story. From the size of it, no way it could lift a person, even a 6 year old. I saw NOTHING in the press questioning if the envelope was big enough to perform as feared.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Of course you didn't see the "PRESS" questioning anything, US journalists are fucking idiots. All they are capable of is reading what some under paid intern drops in front of them. This applies to most of the stories from all of the "NEWS" networks. Why do you think the US is in such terrible shape? The total lack of honest, well thought out information for the masses (read Joe six pack) is the major reason.

        I've got a nicely aged 20 oz. bottle of Jolt Cola from ~2000 for any one who mods this up, as I'm laz

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by zippthorne ( 748122 )

        To be fair, it was kind of tough to tell the scale from the pictures of it flying. Once it got close to the ground, it was obvious to anyone who'd seen that one episode of mythbusters like five years ago. But until then, there just wasn't anything to reference its size to, except maybe the skin crinkle, which would have required extensive knowledge of the material to make judgements based upon.

  • So what... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by krej ( 1636657 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:16PM (#29765485)
    Didn't some kids at MIT send a balloon out of the atmosphere for less than $150 USD recently? What's so special about this?
    • by RuBLed ( 995686 )
      And those MIT kids also managed to take better pictures unlike the overexposed earth taken at ISO 1600 FTFA
    • Re:So what... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Drakin020 ( 980931 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:45PM (#29765619)

      Source: []

      The only real difference is that this one went a bit higher (100,000 ft) where as the MIT guys made it 93,000. Still pretty close though.

      • Re:So what... (Score:5, Informative)

        by mortuus ( 37123 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @05:33AM (#29766781)

        I think that the reason that the newspapers printed this article was because it had a nice story to go with it. These high altitude balloon projects seem to be a bit of a hot topic at the moment. (I'm the Geoff from the Article)

        Yes there have been many similar projects done by others for many years - I'm quite surprised that this story ended up going this far. Mine was a Uni project that I went about by myself, there aren't a lot of technical details in the article but the aim of the project from an engineering point of view was to build a data logging system that would function without fail at very low temperatures. Of course I wanted it to take nice pictures along the way, but this was really just because I thought it would be nice to have my own pictures from "Near Space". Other than the electronics/software design that went in to it, I put the system through low temperature environmental testing so that I could prove (mainly to myself) that the system would work before I launched it. I worked on it part time over a year, there was a lot that went in to it at the end.

        I encourage others that are interested in this hobby to give it a try, it's a lot of fun and a lot more challenging than it seems. I gave it a go, learnt from it, and now plan another launch. I still haven't decided what to put in to the payload for next time round, so here's a question for the /. crowd:

        What would you pack in a high altitude balloon project payload?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          > What would you pack in a high altitude balloon project payload?

          I would put a collection of a dozen small light-weight balsa gliders in it (ready-to-fly weight perhaps 5 gms each) with ID and "please return location" information on them. Then I'd release them at a fairly high altitude and see how far they went. Such gliders, thrown by hand, have caught risers and flown for miles. Could these cross continents?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by crossmr ( 957846 )

          braving negative 47-degrees temperatures

          well jeff, I'd like to tell that you set-up is almost ready for a Canadian winter. In early 2008 we hit -49 for a couple days ;)
          If you'd like to do any environment testing for future projects, just head to Alberta in January/February.

    • To be fair the US has much more helium than Australia and helium was the most expensive thing at ~US$230.
    • Now we can say that all those stories about high altitude camera stealing gremlins probably aren't true..
    • Well, you see, if NASA can smack the Moon's ass in the dark and get people all worked up over nothing, why not some Aussie dweeb that can't set a camera? Special just means vastly underachieved these days it seems...

      Ahhhh, the celebration of mediocrity.
    • Some people from Alberta took HD video of the whole thing on a budget. I think that is more impressive.
    • But the real question is, how many of those kids rode the balloon?

    • I was about to ask the same question
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by camperdave ( 969942 )
      Didn't some kids at MIT send a balloon out of the atmosphere ... recently?

      No they didn't, not even halfway. What's special about this is that neither the summary nor the article make any bogus claims about balloons making it into space.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by LifesABeach ( 234436 )
      An in a related news story:

      (Kennedy Flight Center) NASA Spokeswoman Carrice Light stated at a hastily assembled press conference at a local KFC at Tampa Bay, "NASA has done this many times, and will continue to do so." Ms. Light also went on to say that NASA's projects to explore the heights of space are planned to go way beyond the 100KY Barrier,(short for 100,000 yard barrier), but that it still appears to be a major concern for NASA's administrators. "With the tragic passing of Mr. Jackson, 'Moon Wa
    • and this wasn't even $250, they didn't count APRS radio, camera and the rest of the gear. I can send payload to the moon for $250 if I count like they did.
    • No idea whats special. University's, Weather stations, and Cosmic Ray Physics have been sending observing equipment up on balloons over a hundred years. China is supposed to have unmanned balloons since 220BC.


      [] @ Feed Distiller []

  • by walmass ( 67905 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:17PM (#29765489)
    From Wired []
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It was actually a group of Spanish students who initially did this earlier this year for the first time. and it also got slashdotted (and they didn't get the ISO wrong...).

  • ...Commander, your bounty has been paid. I guess koalas are next.
  • by Toonol ( 1057698 ) on Thursday October 15, 2009 @11:23PM (#29765517)
    I'd say. When the basket fell off, I was sure the boy was dead!

    They should keep it fastened down a little better.
  • Now that the methodology has been worked out, sending a camera up to 100kft is becoming a pretty common university and ham club team project. Provided care is taken during assembly, the biggest gotchas are while inflating the balloon, and hoping the winds keep the payload over an area with suitable roads.

    It'd be neat to see more teams collect additional science, with live TM for extra points. A few years back, a few college students in Beautiful B.C. designed their own UAV [], which flew home after release a 6

    • Cool, so if we can get a baloon with payloads of say 1/2 a pound pure, which is what.... $20k of cocaine.

      Wait for favourable winds/direction. Make sure its blue so it cant easily be seen.

      Fire it up, with a tiny cpu (use old nokia without screen/plastic cover running MIDP2 java app).

      Once it reachs a GPS region or into USA, deflate one of the baloons to desend not too fast, and sms the gps coordinate 5 seconds before hitting the ground.

      Drive up and pick it up at leasure.

      Im sure if you write up a nice prospec

  • Seriously take a look at [] Basically since we started Space travel we've been into macho cowboys who suit up, rocket scientists, and massive flight control systems. Lets face it, the slow boat from Europe or the Middle East, or China still gets here, just a whole lot cheaper. These balloon cams one day is going to get people into space thinking.... What if we could remove about a good 90% of the thrust problem? What if?
    • Uhhh, if you drop something from a high altitude balloon, it falls straight down... For space lift, you need delta-v.
      • Their plan is to use the buoyancy to take the urgency out of the rocket motors. If you don't need to have thrust to have a thrust to weight ratio of four, and can instead get away with much less than one, you can use more mass-efficient engines like hall thrusters and such.

        Of course, that assumes that you can get up enough speed pushing a giant freakin' balloon to be able to detach and complete the trip....

    • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) *

      That joke has been up for decades now.. and yet people keep falling for it.

    • by Thing 1 ( 178996 )
      Huh, looks like they used the white ball from The Prisoner, to achieve lift.
    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      The problem is that this doesn't remove 90% of the thrust problem. It only removes about 3%. Actually it is even less than that.

      Yes, I've seen the JP Aerospace efforts, and that is certainly is an interesting concept. The #1 benefit that comes from launching at high altitude is that you don't have to worry about the troposphere and weather: You pretty much can launch whenever the equipment is ready and when the launch windows is open without having to worry about something like a lightning storm, tornad

  • Fuck Deakin (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 16, 2009 @12:05AM (#29765687)
    Mother fuckers, I attend the Burwood campus at Deakin University and I'm an SIT student and I wanted to do something very similar (Attach some Arduino data logging for sensors etc.) and they told me no and didn't want to hear anything more about it even though I said I could fund it myself, instead this tool who can't even set a camera right does it with University support. I attend the damn university and not even I get to find out about this stuff until I see it on Slashdot! Fuck the "Deakin Experience", they don't give a flying fuck about anyone else other than postgrads and masters students.
  • I can just see the Australian patent lawyers revving their engines again. Thank goodness those MIT students did this before and have prior art so we won't see another stop-stealing-our-toy-designs lawsuit.

  • Anybody who wants to attempt a similar project ought to read part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety rules that specify what operators of unmanned aircraft and rockets must do to ensure safety in the air.

    Can someone summarize what those are or explain the American equivalent? I mean, how do you avoid taking out an airliner's engine or some such thing?

  • Why is this news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Snowtred ( 1334453 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @01:26AM (#29765997)
    This isn't something new, my undergrad university (DePauw University in Indiana) has been sending balloons 100,000 feet (I think our record is about 110,000) with digital cameras for about 5 years: [] Each student had a pod with their own designed experiment, a requirement for a physics course. We bought our system from Taylor University, who have been doing it twice as long.
  • Seems like 110,000 feet is quite common for university balloon flights. The University of Cambridge in the UK also has a project which has been reaching that height for a while (33km). What is interesting there is that they're planning to launch rockets from the balloon, and hoping to reach 150km. You can see their plans at []. Don't know what their costs are.

  • Given the high cost of helium, why not use hydrogen? Helium is safer, of course, but it's not an issue in-flight when there's no human dangling from the balloon. There is a risk at the time of filling, but even then, I don't see how it's more dangerous than handling a bottle of propane for your kitchen. Especially outside. Leaking H2 will go straight up and will not build up to pose much of a threat.

    Am I missing something?

  • This would be awesome for OpenAerialMap []. It's a shame there's no freely available photography dataset of the world yet.

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      Actually, that isn't quite true. All of the Landsat [] data is available in the public domain as it was produced with resources and funding from the U.S. government. This can be found here: []

      Unfortunately, the data isn't packaged and set up to be convenient to folks who want to use it. The copyright information about this satellite data can be found here [] that does confirm it is in the public domain. Some folks have obtained this data and then charged fees and "copyright" for their modifi

      • by chrb ( 1083577 )

        Interesting post, yes, it would be useful to get those old photos declassified.

        Also, some of the higher resolution images found on places like Google Maps are made from commercial imaging satellites, which is protected by copyright.

        That's what I meant, Landsat is quite low resolution (I don't find it particularly difficult to use, with JOSM and other OSM editors map data can be easily laid over landsat images). The Google Maps type images are nice, high resolution, and make mapping areas very easy, it would be good if there were a way to use cheap balloons to gather these type of images for large areas and then release them as part of a larger project with

  • Same thing happened to me a few years ago at Disney World when I was attempting to juggle a hot dog, my digital camera, and some Mickey Mouse balloons I had bought for the kids. The strings got tangled in the camera and when I went to munch on the hot dog, the balloon slipped from my fingers and I watched helplessly as my camera sailed into the unknown.

    But it gets better!

    Several weeks later, I received an anonymous UPS package containing my digital camera! A quick glance showed that the Disney shots
  • Open source tracking (Score:3, Informative)

    by Rorschach1 ( 174480 ) on Friday October 16, 2009 @11:59AM (#29769535) Homepage

    The black gadget at the top of the picture appears to be one of my OpenTracker+ kits - I see that Geoff ordered a couple back in May. So I'm going to take this opportunity for a brief shameless plug: []

    His main payload computer looks to be wholly custom-built, but the OpenTracker+ (that handles taking data from the GPS receiver and transmitting it over the radio) is an off-the-shelf kit that takes maybe an hour to build, if you don't want to pay an extra few bucks for a pre-assembled unit.

    It's based on the Freescale MC908JL16 microcontroller, the full source code is available under the BSD license, and it'll compile with the free version of the Codewarrior IDE. It's got a serial bootloader, so there's no need for a device programmer. If you're comfortable with C programming, it's a very cheap way to build a simple, customizable tracking and telemetry system. Or just run the regular firmware and it'll do a whole bunch of stuff without modification.

    Its larger cousin, the Tracker2, does a whole lot more and the code is released under GPLv3, but unfortunately you can't compile it with the free version of the IDE. It does include a simple scripting engine, though - written mostly so balloon builders would stop bugging me with minor ad hoc changes for their particular setup.


Always leave room to add an explanation if it doesn't work out.