My day in Payerne

Yesterday I was invited to the Meteoswiss HQ in Payerne to see how such a meteorological balloon launch looks like. It was amazing. I got a tour around the whole site and got shown the different instruments that measure all kinds of things that affect our climate. Of course I also got some questions answered. At the end of the tour I also got to see the preparation and launch of a balloon. One major difference to my balloon launch is the choice of gas. Meteoswiss uses hydrogen and I’ll be using helium. The reason why I chose not to use the much cheaper hydrogen is the danger that comes with it. Hydrogen is a very aggressive and flammable gas, so one little problem might cause the whole thing to explode. Helium on the other hand is a harmless gas but also very expensive, luckily i’ll most probably get it from my school which gets it from the University of Basel.
That was about the major difference besides the fact that their flights are completely scientifical. The balloon launched yesterday was a 2 kg balloon, that means the balloon itself already weighs 2 kg’s. Its payload was about 2.5 kg’s heavy. The balloon transported instruments that measure the ozone and humidity levels in the atmosphere. A 2 kg balloon usually flies even higher than 30 km’s.
A thing that was really great about my trip to Payerne was the gift the guys gave me in the end. They offered me lots of informational sheets on balloon flights and they gave me 2(!) 800 gram weather balloons and a parachute that I can use for my launch. I guess I can forget my weird plastic parachute now. I am really really thankful for that gift. And if everything works out fine with getting the helium from school I might even launch the balloon next weekend.

This is the 2 kg balloon launched yesterday

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Balloon start: Getting Closer!

The two weeks of autumn vacation are nearly over and I made a huge leap towards the balloon start. My GPS tracker finally arrived after 3 weeks of waiting and this little thing is amazing! And also the weather balloon is ordered and should arrive soon. And one last thing that gave me a huge smile this week was that Meteo Suisse finally answered. I even arranged a meeting for tomorrow, friday (14.10.11), to watch one of their balloon launches so I can get to know how to handle such a delicate balloon.

This is the tracker

But back to the GPS tracker which arrived yesterday. It’s a little yellow device which is about roughly half the size of an iPhone. It runs with a rechargeable battery which lasts quiet a while. Its exact location is sent via the mobile network, that’s why there’s also a slot for a SIM card. So the first thing I had to do was take my bike to the next MIGROS where I bought an MBudget SIM card, which is more or less the cheapest mobile service you can get in Switzerland and it’s run by Swisscom which has an excellent mobile coverage all over the country.
So I setup the SIM card and put it into the tracker. I had my little difficulties at first like not getting any response from the device, but the problem was soon solved when I realized I have to turn off the PIN code.
This whole system works with special SMS codes and they only work as long as they’re sent from the “Guardian Phone”, which basically is just the phone you activate to work with the tracker. After setting up everything I got to try if it really locates me and yes it did, surprisingly accurate too!

SMS messages sent to get the coordinates.

SMS messages I had to send to set up the tracker.

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Little Planning Changes

So I’ve been writing on my theoretical part of the project for last weeks and only did some minor changes to the capsule and parachute construction. I’ve been trying to contact Meteo Suisse for a while now but there seems to be nobody picking up the phone there, I wrote an E-mail to see if the number was still up to date and I’m for an answer right now. Maybe a little late but still in the possible time window I started looking for a Plan B if I don’t get an answer from Meteo Suisse. I contacted Kaymont, a balloon manufacturing company from the USA, and asked them for some information on their balloons and international shipping. Also here I’m waiting for a response. With the helium question I got a huge leap further today. My chemistry teacher told me I could probably get some helium from the University Basel since there is none at our school.

Also the box will get some little additions in the next 2-3 weeks which include; being painted black (to collect the maximum of the suns warmth), inserting a little plexiglass window for the camera and throwing this whole lot off a bridge.

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The Styrofoam Box

School’s back and I haven’t really worked on my whole project for the last two weeks except for last saturday. What I already have for a while now is a styrofoam box. I got it for free in a local supermarket because those are the ones the fish is delivered with so it also had this smelly fish smell with it. The box itself was kind of big so I cut it in half and tried to form a nice looking box out of it and I have to say that this thing looks really nice right now. But there was one little problem with this whole installation. I had to find out a way to attach the parachute. At first I tried to just stick the strings to the box with duct tape and I was pretty sure it would hold, but it didn’t. I then had to find a way to attach the strings directly into the box, but I didn’t want to cut any holes into the box. What I ended up with doing isn’t that easy to explain so I have a picture for you (and there actually are holes in the box now, but only small ones):

I pulled the strings through the whole box and it holds really well at the moment. And as you can also see I builta little camera holding spot. The GPS tracker will go into the back of the box and so will the hand warmer. When this is all done I’ll paint the box black so it can absorb the heat of the sun rays and it should all work perfectly.










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The Parachute

Although I don’t have a styrofoam box yet I decided to start making a parachute that will safely carry my equipment back to the ground after the balloon flight. The material I used is an ordinary garbage bag. I cut open the bag so it’s a big flat sheet of plastic, then I took half the bag and attached strings to the corners and then attached a box to it. I tried to simulate the weight of the final box that would then go to space, so approximately 500 – 600 grams, maybe less. So my first parachute had a square shape and had side lengths of 53 cm’s. I was already pretty sure that it was too small but I still tried it and threw it off my house’s roof and it actually did brake down the fall, but not to my satisfaction.

Next I searched the internet for any kind of model rocket parachute size calculator and I got lucky. The program told me I needed a circular parachute with a diameter of 129 cm’s. What I decided to do was find out what surface this circle would have and made a square with the same surface. The second parachute now had the size of two cut open garbage bags with side lengths of 106 cm’s. But before I got to test my second parachute it started raining and I had to stop testing for today. But parachute 2.0 looks very promising.

The first parachute I made.

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I finally got my camera, a Canon Powershot A490. It was actually really cheap, I got it for only 40 euros and it’s nearly brand new. But the camera isn’t of any use for me as it is right now. What I have to do is install a custom firmware onto it which gives me the ability to do lot’s of stuff that usually isn’t possible. And this little piece of software is called CHDK (Canon Hacker Development Kit). It took a while to install it on the camera since unfortunately it’s only supported with a BETA version. But it’s up and running now.
There are lot’s of preinstalled tools in this firmware, like taking pictures in the RAW format, or exceeding the shutter speed limits that are set by the original firmware, many little but helpful tools and even games! But the thing that interests me is the ability to take pictures in given intervals. Thanks to this I can create a nice little time lapse film with lots of shots from the earth. Right now I am testing this interval mode with 500 pictures and it seems to work pretty well. Next I’m going to stick the camera into the freezer and hope it survives 3 hours of wintery polar coldness.

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The Internet: My Friend

Good evening all together. I’m back from my refreshing week in the south and am ready to continue my work on my project. The GPS transponder is ready to buy and I’m eagerly searching the web for the cheapest place to buy it, until now it’s ebay where it costs about 60 euros. Of course I’m also looking for a suitable video camera. Since those are pretty expensive (depending on the quality of the created footage) I might switch to a normal compact camera on which I can install a software that takes pictures in programmed intervals. This would result in my film being more of a time lapse film, but it would also give me the chance of having higher resolution still pictures since screenshots of movies aren’t really the best you can get.
What I also finally have is a contact person at Meteo Schweiz. I’m already writing down all kinds of questions I could ask him to make my little project a huge succes.
And what I shouldn’t forget: I’m still searching every corner of the internet for blogs, websites, forums and so on, for other people’s experiences. Just a little example is this site here: click!  Really interesting to read. There’s even a program that can estimate the landing location of the balloons payload.
I’m so excited and can’t wait to hold my little space ship in my hand by the end of summer vacation.

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