Stratospheric Solar Balloon Flight

It took three years and several false starts, but we finally got a solar balloon with a video camera on board to take off successfully.  Not only that, but the balloon reached an elevation of over 22,000 meters (72,000 feet), well into the stratosphere!  Then, it suffered what Elon Musk calls a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” sending the payload into a 22 kilometre free fall that ended in the muddy banks of a cow pond.  Despite this, the photos, video, and GPS track were all recovered.  Here’s the flight video:

The balloon envelope consisted of a 19 foot diameter sphere of 0.31 mil clear plastic paint drop cloth.  Since the drop cloth comes in 12 x 400 foot sheets, we constructed the envelope from 5 gores that were 12 feet wide at the equator.  We attached the gores together using clear shipping tape and darkened the interior of the balloon with black paint pigment.  Each gore seam had a string attached to the bottom with black duct tape.  The opening at the bottom of the balloon is about 6 feet across, allowing two people to inflate it by hand (check out the full inflation and launch video).

The solar balloon in flight just after launch.  Image credit: Mary Lide Parker

The solar balloon in flight just after launch. Image credit: Mary Lide Parker

The payload consisted of a SPOT satellite tracker for recovery, an Arduino Uno with Adafruit High Altitude GPS Shield for trajectory determination, and a Raspberry Pi with camera module for video and stills.  The system was powered using a lithium battery pack meant for recharging cell phones (10 ampere hours).  All this was contained in a Tupperware box with a small hole to admit the camera lens.  We attached it to the balloon using four strings taped onto the box with white duct tape.  The four strings led to a fishing swivel to keep the payload from spinning too much.  We clipped it to the strings on the envelope using a black carabiner. Total payload weight was 800 grams (1.75 lbs).


Payload with the lid off, showing flight instrumentation (left) and payload just before launch (right).

We kept an eye on the wind profiles for about 5 months, since most of the time winds in the troposphere blow out to sea.  Finally, we waterproofed the payload and decided to risk a flight even if some winds were going east.  On May 29, the winds in the troposphere were pretty low (max 10 m/s or so) and with varying azimuth.  The stratosphere had a steady breeze going west, so we figured if we made it that high, we’d head back over land.  However, we had a much faster ascent rate and reached a much higher altitude than we anticipated, so we ended up not flying very far from the launch site.  You can download the trajectory data in text format here or Google Earth KML here.


Ground flight path (left), launch site is the origin. Altitude versus time (centre), local time was GMT – 4. Ascent rate versus time (right), local time was GMT – 4. I obtained the ascent rate by calculating a 1 minute moving average and dividing elevation by time.

The photos and video were very good quality considering that we were using the Raspberry Pi camera module (not the world’s most advanced camera).  The troposphere was pretty misty, and it seems like we even passed through a haze layer on the way up.  However, it could be that the lens fogged up temporarily.  Once we entered the stratosphere, the pictures are much better:


The view from 22 kilometres in the sky.

You can watch a slide show of all the photos here, and all the video clips stitched together here.

Just as we approached neutral buoyancy, the payload unexpectedly separated from the envelope and fell back down to Earth.  We kept GPS tracking until about 18 kilometres elevation, and as far as I can tell the box was falling at about 320 km/hr (200 mph).  The Arduino kept track of time even after losing GPS fix, continuing to record until the moment of impact.  Thus, we know that the payload fell the remaining 18 km in about 12 minutes.  The impact speed was probably less than 100 km/hr (60 mph).  The Tupperware payload box was cracked, and everything except the SPOT tracker stopped working.  Had we landed 10 centimetres or so west, we would have splashed down in a pond.  Luckily, we hit the mud on the pond’s edge (and missed the cows that were in the area).


The payload box at the impact site in Snow Camp, North Carolina.

We consider this flight mostly successful.  Our main objectives were to launch, recover, and extract data from an instrument package lifted with a solar balloon.  Furthermore, we wanted to inflate the solar balloon by hand.  Both of these objectives were reached. Our secondary goals were to fly until sunset, not land in the ocean, and make it to the stratosphere.  The flight was only about 2.5 hours, so we did not fly all day as we hoped.  However, we made it well into the stratosphere and were never in danger of ending up in the ocean.

We had a slightly tense launch when the payload got snagged on the eaves of a nearby building, but the balloon built up enough lift to detach itself in about 20 seconds.  The SPOT tracker did not record any positions during flight, so we did not know where the balloon was and were not even sure if the tracker was working.  In fact, it did not record positions until about an hour and a half after impact. The unexpected flight termination was upsetting as we did not anticipate having the payload detach from the envelope.  We assumed that either the envelope would rupture due to sun-induced heating at altitude or that it would deflate at sunset.  In either case, the payload would have had a large plastic streamer to slow it down to safe velocities.  Instead, it appears that the black duct tape we used to attach the payload strings to the envelope got too hot in the intense sunlight at 22 km.  This caused the payload to come loose from the balloon.  The lesson we learned from this is to never use dark coloured tape if there’s a chance the flight system will make it to extreme elevations.

The Search for our Missing Balloon: Closing in on the Landing Zone

In late May, Jared Sabater of Soleil Multimedia and I launched a high altitude balloon from south Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The balloon was carrying three cameras to capture spectacular high resolution video images of North Carolina from 20 miles in the air. We also expect to see the black sky of near space and a slightly curved horizon. However, the satellite tracker package fell off immediately after launch, and the balloon — cameras in tow — disappeared into the sky.

We set off to the expected landing zone — Harnett County, North Carolina. Needless to say, the search made looking for a needle in a haystack sound easy, and we returned home with nothing. I posted a desperate plea on my blog (read it here) and crossed my fingers, hoping someone would find the payload and get in contact with me. A reporter from the Daily Record in Dunn, North Carolina, came across my blog post and wrote a story about it.  A day later, I got a call from a woman living in Coats, North Carolina.

“I saw your balloon,” she said.

I didn’t believe her at first.  The balloon was supposed to pop in the stratosphere, not come down intact.  She said she saw it at sunset, a full twelve hours after launch — I figured it should have been way out in the Atlantic by then.  But as she described what she saw, I realized that there were only two possibilities:
1.  She saw our balloon.

2.  Someone else launched a high altitude balloon that just happened to come down in Coats.

The probability of #2 is vanishingly small — smaller even than #1, so I was forced to conclude that, in fact, our balloon was somewhere by Coats.  Jared, my friend Xiao, and I drive out to Coats to talk with the witness.  She was wonderfully nice and amazingly observant.  We stood by the window from which she saw the balloon, and she started telling me what she saw.  First of all, her pastor had also seen it crossing a road to the north, so we had a bearing.  Second, she said it had something sticking off to the side.  Third, it had remained in the same place for about an hour.

I didn’t know what to make of the second and third statements.  Balloons don’t fly with things sticking sideways, that makes them unbalanced and they tend to rotate so that whatever it is sticks straight down.  Also, even when the wind is imperceptible at the Earth’s surface, it’s strong enough above the surface to move the balloon out of her viewing area in less than an hour.

That’s when I realized what she’d seen:  Our balloon had already landed by the time she glanced out her window!!

It was simple in retrospect.  By the time the witness looked out her window and saw the balloon, the payload was on the ground or snagged in a tree.  The balloon envelope was still buoyant, hanging above the landing site like a giant flag — pulled slightly sideways and hooked over by the wind (hence the thing sticking out) and more or less stationary (why she was able to see it for an hour in the same place).

Here’s what we know right now:

The balloon envelope is cream to reddish colored and probably up to 20′ across.  It’s likely shredded into bits due to UV light and wind action.  The payload is 40′ from the envelope in a red lunch box with cameras attached.  The envelope is likely draped over a tree, and the payload is probably in the upper branches of another tree.

The area visible to the witness starts at 35.389756 N latitude, 78.638441 W longitude, and extends due east.  We can define sight boundaries by using buildings and trees that obscure her view to the east and the west (see figures below).

We searched several fields in the sight line and didn’t find anything, so the payload’s likely in forested areas.

Another witness saw the balloon crossing Red Hill Church Road at very low elevation, heading towards the first witness’ house, so that road defines a hard eastern boundary to the search area.

The first witness says the balloon was west of Black River – this provides another search area boundary, but with less confidence.

Elevation profiles (see below) and distances to the Black River make it even more unlikely that the witness could have seen the balloon on the ground if it were in the Black River valley.

Here are a series of maps of the search area:

view_areaThe red triangle defines the region visible from the first witness’ house, with the east boundary defined from the road which the balloon crossed per the second witness’ description.  Green polygons enclosed regions we were able to search on our first trip out to Coats.  The pale blue arc is 1 mile from the first witness’ house.  It’s hard to imagine being able to make out as much detail as she reported if the balloon is beyond this circle.

Elevation profiles along the north and south sight lines are available here:



These profiles suggest that the Black River area would be difficult to see from the first witness’ location.


The four yellow polygons show the most likely landing zones based on the analyses described above.  Areas A and B are by far the most probable locations for the payload, based on the witness’ statements and distance from where she saw it.  Any search should carefully investigate these regions.  Area C is also possible, but rather less probable because it is significantly below (and thus probably invisible from) the witness’ house.  Also, it’s quite far away, which would make the details she described hard to see.  Finally Area D cannot be eliminated, but it is the least likely due to elevation and distance.

Our next step is to go out and search.  If you’d like to join, or if you have some other information for us, let us know!

Anyone seen a red lunch box with cameras attached?

Catastrophe!  Yesterday, while launching a hydrogen balloon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, our satellite tracker fell out of the payload.  The camera box, however, cheerfully continued its ascent into the wild blue yonder.  The result?  There is a red lunch box with three cameras in it somewhere in North Carolina.

Detailed description of payload as it will appear on the ground:

Shreds of mylar and a balloon nozzle, followed by a 40′ string, then a plastic parachute (may look like a plastic bag from far away).  Another length of string approximately 10′ long, followed by a red lunch box with “Solar Balloon Payload” and my phone number written on it.  The lunch box has three cameras, one pointing down, one pointing out the side, and a smaller one pointing up.  A milk jug with a sticker saying “Soleil Multimedia” may also still be attached.

The projected landing zone was in north/northwest Harnett County.  I believe that is reasonably accurate.  So our payload, with spectacular footage, is somewhere out there.  I want it back.

Here’s a couple of potential flight trajectories:

Trajectory 1

Trajectory 2

Trajectory 3

If you have any information or know anyone in the region who might be able to help, please contact us.