Which is the best SPOT tracker for your HAB – weather balloon flight?

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There was a time when you only had one choice when using SPOT as a tracker for your HAB flight. Then came the ever popular SPOT messenger and, along with the rise of action cameras, the hobby of HAB grew and grew. Now there are a plethora of SPOT devices to tracker your HAB flight including the GEN 3 and Trace. But which is best for your HAB flight?

SPOT Messenger (blue) and SPOT Trace (orange)

SPOT Messenger (blue) and SPOT Trace (orange)

In a recent flight I used both the SPOT Trace and Messenger. Due to unforeseen circumstances the payload twisted to point to the horizon (and not straight up) so the results are unexpectedly good. The results from the SPOT Trace, which was recording payload location every 5 minutes, was very impressive. This has inspired me to test all the SPOT trackers on one flight. More details of the test will be posted closer to launch date.

High Altitude Ballooning causes less damage than the Telegraph article would suggest

While writing a blog post on the ways HAB flights can go wrong, I came across an article by the Telegraph news paper on the cost of Met Office radiosondes landing and damaging people’s property.


The figure of £25,000 worth of damage to 2010 seemed alarmist so I did some digging.

Data released to me by the Met Office under a  FOI request suggests that high altitude ballooning is a low impact hobby. I asked the Met Office for information on insurance claims made as a result of their radiosonde programme during the years 2010 to the start of 2014. This is the response I got.

“No claims have been submitted to insurers during the financial years 2010/11 to
2013/14. The excess on our insurance policy is £5,000. We have had a small number of
low level claims made to us directly during the period, relating to matters such as, the
retrieval of sonde balloons caught in trees (various), one caught on a power line (2010),
one case of damage to a roof tile (2011) and one case of ingestion by farm livestock
(2012). The maximum cost of these claims was £200.”

Given that the the frequency of high altitude balloon flight by the Met Office is much greater than the hobby community, we can assume that the amount of claims from hobbyists and the science community is much less. While I don’t have any data from hobbyists, I am happy to assume that the impact of HAB as a hobby is much less than the Met Office radiosonde programme.

NASA ready for balloon flight to test Mars landing technology

Source http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/june/nasa-sets-new-dates-media-coverage-for-saucer-shaped-test-vehicle-flight/index.html#.U63ArPldVJI

A saucer-shaped test vehicle holding equipment for landing large payloads on Mars is shown in the Missile Assembly Building at the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kaua‘i, Hawaii.  The vehicle, part of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project, will test an inflatable decelerator and a parachute at high altitudes and speeds over the Pacific Missile Range this June.

A saucer-shaped test vehicle holding equipment for landing large payloads on Mars is shown in the Missile Assembly Building at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kaua‘i, Hawaii. The vehicle, part of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project, will test an inflatable decelerator and a parachute at high altitudes and speeds over the Pacific Missile Range this June. A balloon will lift the vehicle to high altitudes, where a rocket will take it even higher to the top of the stratosphere at several times the speed of sound. This image was taken during a “hang-angle” measurement, in which engineers set the vehicle’s rocket motor to the appropriate angle for the high-altitude test. The nozzle and the lower half of the Star-48 solid rocket motor are the dark objects seen in the middle of the image below the saucer.

Helicopter sent to Google balloon near Christchurch

Source http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-27938230

Project Loon wi-fi balloon
The 12m high balloon was too big to be rescued by a local lifeboat

An emergency helicopter has been mistakenly scrambled after a Google wi-fi balloon ditched in the sea near Christchurch in New Zealand.

The plummeting balloon, measuring 12m (39ft) in height, was spotted by a pedestrian who thought a light aircraft was in trouble and contacted police.

Google said it would repay the cost of sending the helicopter to the scene.

In June 2013, 30 balloons were launched by Google in New Zealand to provide wi-fi in remote areas.

The call to the emergency services initially led to the launch of a lifeboat off the South Island’s east coast.

The helicopter was called in when the rescuers could not recover the balloon because of rough conditions.

“We will get in touch with the Westpac rescue helicopter crew to reimburse them for the mistaken rescue flight,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told news site Stuff New Zealand.

Last year’s launch marked the start of Google’s Project Loon, which will eventually employ up to 400 balloons encircling the Earth to give people wireless net access.

The balloons will float in the stratosphere around the Earth’s 40th parallel, providing wi-fi to buildings fitted with a special antenna.

They are designed to stay up for about 100 days, and when they descend, co-ordinators try to guide them down on to land.

Most balloons were recovered after landing, Mr Luu added.

A postcard from the Great Plains Super launch 2014


http://www.nearspaceballooning.com/# taken by John Flaig’s payload during the GPSL

Every year HAB enthusiasts from the US gather in the great plains for a ‘super launch’.


The super launch is a chance for enthusiasts to get together to share ideas on a range of HAB topics such as hydrogen handling, radio tracking, and the latest in satellite based tracking systems. Last Thursday / Friday the event took place in Hutchinson, Kansas. Again it was well attended and included participants from

John Flaig, who attended, sent us a postcard from the great event.

“I launched a 3000 gram Hyowee this morning at 4:45am. I don’t have the right micro-sd card reader on me so I can’t check the altitude, but judging by the pics it surely exceeded 100,000 feet. The interesting thing was I tried two Spots, one facing sideways and the other in the gimbal. You can see the results here:
In the end they both would have worked alone.
The winds were insane today, luckily since I launched so early I didn’t have a problem, but you can see from the flight path how crazy it was. Everyone else was quite concerned about getting their balloons aloft. When I found the payload, it was just 1000 feet from the road, but as I approached it the winds filled the parachute and I literally had to run at full speed across the field to catch it. Everything inside got tossed as though it was a washing machine and a lot of mud covered the box and some of the cameras, but luckily no serious damage was done and all the cameras worked.
I also tried the new University of Michigan Flight Predictor. It was off by five miles, which is very good. CUSF was off by 3 miles.
I’m interested to hear how the other people did. It was amusing to observe the group as well. These guys are mostly middle-aged, extremely smart and highly skilled in radio, electronics, programming, engineering, ect. A few people there had competed in the GSBC, and I had the sense from others that there was mutual respect about the whole thing. On the whole they were very welcoming.”


Global Space Balloon Challenge Photographic competition winners announced

the winning entry by John Flaig

the winning entry by John Flaig

The organisers of the first Global Space Balloon challenge (balloonchallenge.org) have announced the winners of the photography competition. The organisers said, “Congratulations to the winners of the Best Photo challenge! All the submissions were awesome, but these 3 stood out to our judges:

The Balloon News web store are proud to have supported the 2nd place entry by Barry from Orion 13.

US students put SPOT Trace to the test on weather balloon flight


In May 2014 students from the Midland Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina launched the first HAB flight with the new SPOT Trace tracker. The flight was part of their college project. Here is the flight story from one of the team members.


10:20am – I arrived at campus (our launch site) to begin setting up. WLTX news was already there! One of my students was already there and he helped me bring all the equipment to the launch site.



11:15am – All equipment and materials are laid out and we begin filling the balloon. Other students simultaneously are working on getting GPS gyro-bowl installed in payload and initializing GoPro camera. We were extremely fortunate our 125 cu ft helium tank ran out of helium exactly when we hit our required lifting force of 7.5 lbs.


11:39am – Liftoff. Everything went perfectly without a hitch.


11:50am – We pack up launch site and head towards predicted landing site outside of Sumter, SC. The balloon tracks very well, and heads north for a bit before turning sharply east.

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 1.07.55 PM

12:19pm – We lose contact (as expected) with the payload as the balloon surpasses 20,000 feet (max operating altitude for SPOT GPS).

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 1.05.46 PM

1:42pm – We get our first GPS hit from Sumter a few miles away. We get three in succession right around each other as the balloon descends.


Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 1.21.31 PM

1:54pm – Touchdown. The payload comes to rest in a storage facility. Fortunately, the gates were open for customers and we were able to drive in and retrieve our payload.


We immediately get the footage out and view it on our laptop. Success!!