Jake III – The successful launch of a 20 ft solar balloon

Jake III Solar Balloon Launch!

Last Friday (May 18th, 2012), my coworkers and I successfully launched a 20 ft diameter solar balloon from Norwood, Massachusetts (42.173073,-71.213297)..  It had an Android cellphone on board with the free Instamapper app for tracking purposes.  It also had a group of 9 messages sealed in bottles, since I expected the balloon to land in the Atlantic Ocean.  These bottles were attached to the balloon using a caramel seal (a toilet paper tube filled with melted sugar), which should have dissolved when it hit the water, allowing the bottles to drift off into the current.

What is a solar balloon, you ask?  It is a hot air balloon heated by the sun.  That means it requires no fuel; the sun heats up the air inside the balloon, and the whole thing lifts off.  I will describe how I constructed Jake III later on in this blog post, for other good websites check here and here.  The design that inspired Jake III is here.

Below is a photo of Jake III heating up before launch:


Launch sequence:

After I finished making Jake III, we had two weeks of cloudy, windy weather.  Go figure.  But we finally got a four day stretch of clear, calm weather.  My coworker Josh Simpson and I picked last Friday because the weather report said 0 mph winds at 6:00 AM.  We sent word out to our coworkers, and got quite a group together considering we were meeting at 5:30 AM.

After scoping out the winds (very gentle and from the southwest), we taped the Android right to the bottom of the balloon and laid it out on a couple of tarps.  I tossed charcoal powder inside the balloon to darken the clear plastic fabric, and Jason Chrzanowski fired up his leaf blower for inflation.

After inflating the balloon about halfway, we gave it about 20 minutes or so to heat up.  I was concerned because I have never actually launched a solar balloon before, but after a while it was clear that the air inside was heating up.  We added a bit more air and soon the balloon began to rise.

Jake III starts to become buoyant:


Once the balloon started to rise, all the charcoal powder tumbled out.  This means that you should really add the charcoal powder prior to launch (we were hoping the leaf blower would distribute it but that didn’t pan out).  Still, part of the balloon was dark.

The balloon ascended to the end of the 30′ string I had attached to the payload, and we began to walk it out into the park.  After a couple of minutes more, the balloon had gained enough lift to pick up the payload.  I let it go and walked beside it for a while, and it slowly gained elevation.  It narrowly missed a light pole, and kept going up and up.

Here’s Jake III flying under its own power:


We watched it drift south for a while, drift back north, and then finally catch some higher winds and take off to the southeast.  Our tracker was able to locate it until it got up to 9,000 ft, after which time it was above cell phone reception.  When we last heard from it, it was rising 300 ft per minute, moving at 18 mph to the southeast.  We expect that it caught the jet stream (80-100 mph that day) and was taken far out to sea, where it landed after sunset.  But we’ll never know for sure unless someone finds a bottle and writes us back.

Here’s Jake III in flight:


How I built Jake III:

Cost:  around $50.


9 x 400 ft roll of 0.31 mil clear painter’s drop cloth (get it at Home Depot for about $25)

Make sure it is 0.31 mil.  This is the thinnest plastic you can buy.  It is comparable to the fabrics used for scientific balloon launches.  Do not try to use trash bags-you will spend weeks ironing them together, and the balloon will be weaker anyway.

1 Jar of Artist’s Charcoal Powder (got it off of Amazon.com)




Duct Tape

Scotch Tape

Small plastic tubing

Clothes iron

We also used a smartphone for tracking, but it didn’t work as well as we’d hoped because it only tracked below 9,000 ft.  If you do opt for a smartphone, use the app I mention at the beginning of the post and make sure you use a phone on the website’s list.  Not every smartphone will work.  My coworker James Roehrig’s android was up for renewal, so he sacrificed his old phone to our balloon.  Obviously we got the phone for free, so I didn’t include it in the cost, but I believe you can get one that will work for around $50.

Construction of the Balloon Envelope:

Instead of using the tetroon designs that are common on the Internet, I made a spherical balloon by cutting gores from the plastic I bought.  You can use a gore pattern for a parachute (for example here); since a parachute is a half sphere.

If you are making a 20′ balloon, you’ll probably need help, and you’ll need a large space, like a gym (one gore for a 20′ balloon is around 33 ft long).  I recommend cutting each length of plastic from the drop cloth sheet and folding it twice; once lengthwise and once crosswise, then laying each folded sheet on top of each other.  Then draw the gore pattern on the top sheet and make a single cut.  I ended up with 7 gores that I could just unfold into their final shape using this method.

Next, you have to weld the gores together.  You can do this in a smaller space as long as you keep all your pieces of plastic organized.

I use a regular clothes iron to weld plastic.  You will need to practice and adjust the iron settings before the plastic will weld correctly.  Too hot, and the plastic will melt together and stick to the iron; plus the seam is very weak.  Too cold and it won’t stick at all.  Just right, and the two pieces of plastic will hold even when you pull pretty hard.  One piece of advice:  make sure you’re on a hard floor.  Carpet and ironing don’t mix.  Take the water out of the iron and use the iron edge rather than the middle.

A lot of people apparently use tape to attach the gores together.  This is probably faster but weighs a lot more. Also tape can make a huge mess if it comes undone and gets snarled in the rest of the balloon.

When you’ve ironed the final gores together, weld the two edges of the giant sheet of plastic you’ve made together, and now you have a truly massive bag-your balloon.  Try not to trap any air because it makes the balloon a lot harder to store.

Finally, cut a circular hole in one part of the balloon for the air intake.  I recommend doing this at one of the poles, where all the gores meet up.  This is a natural weak spot, so using it removes one place where the balloon could rip open.

I reinforce this opening by making a
loop of tubing, pulling the balloon fabric through, and folding it back on the outside of the balloon, then duct taping it on the outside and the inside.  This gives the opening enough strength to hold a substantial payload without ripping.

Here’s a picture of the opening (in the red duct tape).  The balloon is packed and ready to go!


Making the payload:

A payload can be anything you want, but you absolutely need weight on the bottom to keep the balloon opening pointing down, so that the hot air is trapped in the bag above it.  For Jake III, I probably could have put a pound or two and it would have been fine.  I am not sure what the maximum payload I could have lifted is, but I expect I probably could have gotten around 10 lbs off the ground.  Of course, the bigger the payload, the lower the final altitude is.  Also, the FAA regulates payloads above 4 pounds, read the regs here and make sure you understand them.

However, since I was planning to launch it into the ocean, I thought it would be neat to have my coworkers and their children write messages in bottles (my wife and I contributed some too) and fly them on the balloon, so that when it landed they would drift off and be found someday.  To this end I developed a payload release mechanism that (I hope) did the trick.  I tied a string to a cardboard toilet paper tube for the balloon attachment, and then draped another string loosely inside the same tube for the bottle attachment.  I then filled the whole thing with melted sugar and let it harden.  My thought is that the water dissolves the sugar, and the bottles float off.  This is based on how underwater seismographs are deployed.  Of course, I won’t know if it worked or not unless at least two bottles are found unattached to each other!  Here’s a photo of the payload setup:


Making the balloon dark:

I used artist’s charcoal powder to coat the inside of the plastic.  Jake III wasn’t too dark because I did it on launch day, but a prototype I did worked really well when I spent 10 minutes or so flapping the powder inside before I dumped it back out.  The prototype was 10′ in diameter and easily picked up a 2 pound bucket.

Launch day:

Obviously it has to be sunny, otherwise the balloon won’t heat up and fly.  But there also has to be absolutely no wind.  Wind ruins your day in a hurry.  First, it makes it harder to inflate the balloon because the wind just pushes the air out again.  Second, solar balloons take along time to climb out of tree range.  The more wind, the more chance the whole thing flies into a tree.

If leaves are rustling, there is too much wind.  Go back to sleep.

Also, you need a good inflation method.  A leaf blower works great, especially a gas powered backpack mounted one like we used.  Exhaust from vacuums work also, but the exhaust tends to be hot so your balloon might take off pretty quick.  Hair dryers are great for smaller solar balloons but it would take a very long time to inflate a Jake III sized balloon with one.  It took 10 or 15 minutes of continuous leaf blower action, and a leaf blower moves a lot of air even on idle (we didn’t crank it because I didn’t want to pop the balloon).

Make sure you are in a big open space, and that you are at the most upwind portion of it.  Even when you can’t feel any wind, the wind is going at about walking pace.  You’ll need the space for the thing to take off.

Inflate, wait for it to heat up, let it go, and enjoy the show!

Note: although these objects are legal when subject to the regs I linked to earlier, do realize that you are liable for injuries or destruction caused by something you launch.  Keep it away from airports.  I even notified the local airport so they could give pilots a heads up.  Also, secure the payload so that it doesn’t drop off from 20,000 ft and put a hole through someone’s car.  Finally, what goes up must come down; spare a thought to what the balloon might land on.  That’s why I chose the Atlantic Ocean.

12 thoughts on “Jake III – The successful launch of a 20 ft solar balloon

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    • I have recently become disillusioned with heat sealing. You can use a clothes iron or get an impulse heater (cheapest one is ~$30 on Amazon) to heat seal the drop cloth.
      However, it is impossible to avoid holes, and one hole means your balloon will quickly rip if any wind stress happens. That’s how our 40′ solar balloon tore in half.
      I recommend taping the gores together with clear masking tape. It is much stronger, and although it does increase the weight, the strength benefit is worth it.

      • Thanks for the feedback… I am thinking then I should maybe make most of the shell mylar and blacken the clear mylar on the top. I am hoping to break some altitude records. Sounds like the drop cloth wont withstand the high altitude winds and jet stream. I contacted the owner of http://www.balloonkits.com he said the balloon mylar is stronger than latex though when I look at the combined weight I realized that its goin to be heavy even with helium inside at 40′ . Hmmmmm. Tough decisions. Cheers

      • Yes, high altitude flights are tough, and there’s a reason that record is still standing. I recommend starting small. There’s a possibility that charcoal-darkened polyethylene (that’s what I use for solar balloons) may actually melt above 70,000 ft. My friend calculated that. We are not sure if it’s true or not. I’m very interested in trying to make my own helium/hydrogen balloons, and we’ll probably be doing that this summer. I’m not sure how much of a height advantage you’ll get with solar, but I’ve not really considered it.

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  8. This is awesome! I’d originally made the plans James Lent copied and its real cool to see you work from that! I disagree on using tape– I seal in 10′ increments on a formica tabletop though– it makes a real clean seal, better than the floor.

    here’s the state of my solar balloons. I recommend using Bayferrox 330 iron hydroxide pigment instead of charcoal, it makes a way darker balloon. Instructions on getting some below. you can also e-mail me and I’ll send you some.

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