Computer controlled helium valve

MSU students find success 84,000 feet above Earth

April 25, 2014 — By Evelyn Boswell Source


MSU students prepare to launch a latex weather balloon at the Harlowton Airport to test innovations that would allow the balloon to gather more information from the edge of space. (Photo courtesy of Montana Space Grant Consortium).

BOZEMAN – Montana State University students have found a way to gather more information from the edge of space, a historic feat they plan to share with students across the country, according to officials with the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

The accomplishment that could result in a nation-wide study of a solar eclipse proved itself when students launched a high-altitude helium weather balloon from the Harlowton Airport on April 19, said Berk Knighton, flight director for the consortium’s BOREALIS program.

As high-altitude, helium-filled weather balloons rise, they expand as air pressure decreases. A latex weather balloon the size of a Volkswagen Beetle on the ground can stretch to the size of a small house at 100,000 feet. When the balloon eventually pops, the scientific instruments it carries plummet back to Earth where they are retrieved and their data extracted. Until the MSU student innovations, there was no way to make a balloon “hover” in the atmosphere. For the scientific instruments onboard, it was a quick trip up and a quick trip down.

Now, because of the student-built valve that releases helium, balloons won’t pop automatically as they near the upper limits of the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, the balloons will hover at an altitude of the students’ choosing. The balloon that was launched from Harlowton hovered at an altitude of 84,000 feet for 15 minutes and could have gone much longer, Knighton said. Because of student-designed computer systems, the students told the balloon how long and high to fly before commanding a tiny tethered dart to pop the latex.

“We believe this is the first time that a student-designed device of this type was used to achieve float,” Knighton said.

The MSU achievement will allow students to conduct new experiments because they will have more time to collect data from the near-space environment, Knighton said. At 84,000 feet, MSU’s balloon was above 98 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. MSU students typically use latex weather balloons to gather information about such things as radiation, temperature and pressure.

“That’s the cool thing now,” Knighton said. “We can take our normal weather balloons and extend the time aloft, so we can conduct more interesting experiments.”

A big goal now is for the Montana Space Grant Consortium to work with consortiums in Hawaii and Colorado to coordinate a nation-wide study of a total solar eclipse that will occur in 2017, Knighton said. Because of the recent discovery in Montana, participants would use high-altitude weather balloons to gather information about the eclipse.

The Harlowton demonstration tested work conducted by 38 students over the past year, said Randy Larimer, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium. Key students were Tim Basta, Scott Miller, Nichole Murray and Jameson Motley.

Basta, a junior from Great Falls and a mechanical engineering major, designed and built the valve that released helium. He built on work that was started by Murray, a mechanical engineering major from Bozeman. High-altitude projects are incredibly challenging, he said, adding that participants have to consider everything from cost to temperature fluctuations.

Miller, a junior from Kalispell and a computer engineering major, designed the software and hardware that allowed the students to track the balloon by satellite, send commands to the valve and balloon, and interpret the data. Miller took over his portion of the project from Motley of Kalispell, a mechanical engineering major who graduated in the fall.

“It’s really been fun,” said Miller, adding that the early morning trip to Harlowton gave him his first view of the sunrise this year.

A dozen MSU students, as well as Knighton and Larimer, drove to Harlowton for the 8:30 a.m. launch. Shortly before 11 a.m., feeling they had proved what they had set out to do, they popped the balloon, jumped in the air and gave each other high-fives. Then, following GPS signals for the balloon, they drove about 20 miles and asked Matt McAndrews of Ryegate if they could hike through his pasture. About a mile later, after a relatively easy trek compared to others they’ve made to recover balloons, they retrieved their balloon near Deadman’s Basin Reservoir.

“Everything went right,” Miller said. “Everything just worked right. There were no issues, which occasionally there can be. All the commands worked.”

The balloon project was another high point in their experience with the Montana Space Grant Consortium, according to Miller and Basta. Both were members of winning teams in the 2013 National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition, which was organized by the MSGC, so they traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in November to watch the launch of the MAVEN mission to Mars.

The balloon launch illustrated another opportunity the Montana Space Grant Consortium gives students to apply what they learned in the classroom, Basta said.

BOREALIS has really been a nice theater to put book learning into practice,” Basta said, referring to MSU’s high-altitude balloon program which was founded in 2001.

As part of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, BOREALIS allows students from a variety of disciplines to work together to design and build payloads that are flown up to 100,000 feet in the near-space environment. Basta has been involved in the program since the beginning of his sophomore year.

“It’s definitely expanded my knowledge of other fields of engineering,” Basta said. “It’s a unique experience where you get to work on a design team similar to what an engineer would do in an actual workplace.”

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or

Reward offered in search for high-altitude balloon payload in Marshall Co.

The search is on in Marshall County for a paper aircraft that was supposed to be launched from a high-altitude balloon as part of a Guinness World Record attempt/science project. Something went wrong during the flight, and now a reward is being offered to anyone who can find the plane.


The following release and photos were issued Tuesday morning by the Fox Valley Composite Squadron:

“WEST CHICAGO, IL – Weather permitting, on Saturday, April 26 2014, the Fox Valley Composite Squadron (a unit of the Civil Air Patrol based in West Chicago, IL) will perform air and ground searches for a high-altitude balloon payload that went missing in Marshall County, Indiana. The public’s assistance is also requested and a reward will be issued to anyone who finds and returns the entire assembly: a 28-inch fluorescent pink paper aircraft and internal electronics payload.

“Back on December 28, 2013, Fox Valley Composite Squadron launched the paper airplane aboard a large, high-altitude, helium balloon from Kankakee Airport in hopes of breaking the Guinness World Record for “Highest Paper Airplane Flight from a High-Altitude Balloon”. The project was started as a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) project for the unit’s cadet members (youth ages 12-17).

“The team was able to track the aircraft’s progress via a real-time GPS tracking system. Everything was progressing nicely, but, just Northwest of Plymouth, IN, as it ascended through 85,153 feet – just 4,438 feet shy of the existing 89,591 foot record – both the balloon and aircraft appeared to experience a failure that sent everything descending back to Earth. The aircraft descended through 54,981 feet where it then stopped reporting location and altitude… information critical to recovery of the aircraft; But the aircraft’s telemetry continued to broadcast data for another eight minutes before it too was lost. A Civil Air Patrol aircraft was immediately dispatched to the area but failed to receive the aircraft’s locator transmitter.


“By analyzing this “forensic data” – the flight path, telemetry information and historical weather – the team was able to forecast an area where the aircraft and payload are likely to have landed [see attached image]. The team is sharing this information with the public in hopes that everyone in (and around) the area will check their properties for the missing paper aircraft and electronics payload.

“The Civil Air Patrol is using the missing payload as an additional training opportunity – with parallels to one of their real-world missions of Search & Rescue of Missing aircraft in the United States – and launching several air sorties to visually scan the search area. Ground Teams will also be deployed to further investigate any sightings made from the aircraft. A reward is also being offered to anyone who finds and returns the paper aircraft and payload.

“But, this search will be especially challenging as the object is relatively small. The object is a 28-inch wingspan, fluorescent pink, aircraft made of cardboard and poster board [see photo]. The aircraft contains a styrofoam payload section that houses the GPS tracking system, HD video camera, flight computer and batteries.

“Considering that the aircraft may have been covered by snowfall, searches were delayed until after the Spring melt. If anyone discovers this paper aircraft, any of its contents, or have tips, please call the Fox Valley Composite Squadron at 1-877-308-5665. The public’s assistance is also requested in allowing Ground Team members access to property. Access will only be requested if search results indicate a possible target.”


GSBC has begun

The GSBC has now begun and here is the introductory message sent out GSBC team:-

As teams in Australia prepare their balloons, the Global Space Balloon Challenge has OFFICIALLY BEGUN! It’s finally time to let all of your hard work fly! Good luck!

Just a final few notes as you do some last minute preparation:
Track Your Payload
Don’t forget to use predictor software to see where your balloon will be before you launch it! The University of Michigan have developed their own awesome program that everyone can access and use – please see Nathan Hamet’s post about it on the forum!!/software (you have to click on the header of the section to see his post). Thanks Nathan!
Submit Your Photos
On the front page of the website, you will find a portal to submit photos from your launch  – please send us all your best imagery so we can post it on the gallery for everyone to admire! We are continually improving it based on people’s feedback, so if you check and do not see it, please check back in a few hours.
Submit Your Challenge Entries
Check out the new submit page of the website where you can upload your entries for the challenges for highest altitude, best photograph, best design, and best experiment! Also check out the challenge page to see updated information on the judging process. Professors and engineers from various schools and companies will be looking at everything carefully!
Assembling Your Payloads
Check out the tutorials on the website for info on assembling your payloads if you haven’t already.
Have Fun and Good Luck!!
If you need anything, please let us know. We will be out launching balloons this weekend as well but will do our best to answer any questions people might have.
Fly High!


Hungarian Cubesat reaches for the sky, and makes a safe return.

Written by Bence Góczán
On the 15th of April there was the Simonyi Conference organized by students, and one of the attractions was our balloon launching. After the flight I presented the details of our project for about 400 people.
The ballon flight:
We used a telemetry computer fully developed by our team. It has an integrated camera, radio communication, GPS and data logger.
The planned launch time was 11:00 UTC, but we had some technical issues. First the supply of the GPS wasn’t good, then the GPS antenna broke, but thanks to the MASAT team (they built the first Hungarian CubeSat we could fix it in their laboratory.
The launch was at 13:00 UTC. The wind was kind of heavy, but tolarable for the flight. It was streamed through the internet, thanks to the Video Studio of our University. They filmed the whole process with two cameras, one of them had a huge tele lens.
One of the national TV channels was there too, and our launch was aired in the evening news too. (HAB launches are rare events here in Hungary)
Here are some pictures of the launch and the pre-launch procedure:
The flight path was very close to the predicted path during ascent, but the descent was slower thanks to the bigger parachute we used, so the unit landed ~30kms to the South from the predicted landing place.
Unfortunatelly we lost the signals of the balloon after aprox. 20mins after launch. This time it was at about 5-6000m above sea level. We got the telemetry data through amateur radio frequency. We think the batteries frozen or some humidity get into the capsule and the computer shut down.
During this 20mins of flight the balloon sent back two great picture through radio.
Our recovery team went to the predicted landing sight, but they found nothing (we didn’t know at that point that the unit was 30kms away). The capsule had our contact information on its side, so we had the hope that someone would find it.
Next day (16th of April) I’ve got a phone call in the morning, that our balloon was found at a farm.
Today we recovered the capsule, and right now we are checking what was the problem, why we lost the contact during flight.
We found some more pictures on the SD card of the capsule, soon they will be published too.
Next week we will start to plan our next flight with an updated telemetry computer and insulation capsule. During the next flight we are going to measure sun radiation and its effect for solar panels in different heights and temperature.

The first commercially available balloon cut down hits the shelves

Hexpert, the maker of the Zlog 7 flight computer has added a balloon cutdown / high voltage switch board to it’s offering to the HAB community.


This nylon cord cutter module takes a logic level voltage input and uses it to switch a high current circuit.  It was designed to switch a small 4-cell AA or NiCd battery pack to heat up a nichrome wire that would cut through a nylon or polyester cord to separate a payload from a weather balloon.


The key features of the module are:-

  • Switch up to 25 volts, and 10 amps.
  • Control voltage input ranges from 3.3 to 20 volts.
  • Screw terminals for high current source (battery pack) and nichrome wire (or other load).
  • Control input designed to mate with ZLog-7 port J11 (requires firmware 1.4 running on ZLog-7 for altitude triggered control).
  • 1.35″ x 0.8″ x 0.5″ (34 mm x 20 mm x 12 mm).
  • 4 grams.
  • Includes 1 meter nichrome wire. Recommended nichrome loop length of 2.3″ (6 cm) works well with 4-cell NiCd pack.

For more information go to

10 ways that a high altitude balloon flight can go wrong

With the Global Space Balloon Challenge, a lot of emphasis in the media has been placed on how easy it is to conduct a high altitude balloon flight. This article seeks to redress the balance by pointing out how easily a HAB flight can go wrong, using the experience of actual HAB flights.


1. Bad weather. As with other pass times that use the skies, weather is the main reason why planned HAB flights never leave the ground. Rain, snow, poor visibility, freezing temperatures, and windy conditions will all lead to the cancellation of HAB flights. For those who try and brave high winds, they risk underinflating the balloon as turbulent winds give a false impression of balloon buoyancy.

SOLUTIONS: In high winds take any opportunity to fill the balloon in an enclosed space such as a hanger or barn.

2. No / poor flight plan. Planning a flight, so that operators have a clear idea where their payload may go, is key to a successful mission. Conversely, when flights are not planned then failure can happen. Last year, in BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO), two independent filmmakers had to  ask for the public’s help to find their missing weather balloon.


Jacob Adams and Galen Olmsted launched the balloon from Preston Miller Park. Their GPS tracking system failed. “Yeah. It was about $120 per camera. There were three cameras and yeah I would say the whole thing cost me about $800. So the next launch would cost me around 400 or 500. I wouldn’t have as many cameras,” says Jacob Adams. Adams said, who did not forecast the balloons flight path said “ The balloon could have traveled anywhere from 40 to 250 miles away.” If Jacob had a flight plan with forecast, then me may have had some idea about where to look for his payload.

SOLUTIONS: Plan your flight. Online forecast software is available from CUSF and Wyoming University. CUSF also offer an online burst calculator which provides a great guide; but only a guide.

3. Under inflating your balloon. If you don’t have a clear grasp about how much gas your balloon needs to achieve the desired ascent rate then you will most likely under inflate or over inflate the balloon. In my first flight, I inadvertently achieved a very low ascent rate. As a result, the flight from Welshpool that should have only gone east of Shrewsbury, went to the Netherlands. Similarly in 2014 a team from Nottingham University Physics society lots their payload out to see as the balloon was under inflated. Their situation was compounded by loosing a tracking signal from their radio beacon. Their payload was eventually recovered when it washed up on a beach but the camera equipment was ruined.


Even when you have a good grasp of the gas fill you need and how much you think you have put in, things can still go wrong. If your gas cylinder has not been pressurised with the correct amount of gas ad you fail to check the amount of lift the fill gives then you will release an underinflated balloon. Both Adam Cudworth of the UK ( and John Flaig of Wisconsin, USA ( have had HAB flights that have gone on much longer than expected due to the insufficient pressurisation of their helium cylinders.

SOLUTION: UKHAS provide many useful wikis to balloon inflation. CUSF burst calculator will also give you a guide to the lift provided by your balloon. Make sure you double check the lift provided by your balloon.

4. Early balloon failure. When you plan your high altitude balloon flight, optimism focuses you on your forecast balloon burst height. But balloons can burst much earlier than expected. This may be due to a manufacturers defect or icing on the balloon. This can radically change the landing site and your plans for recovering the payload. In September 2013 I launched a 1600gm balloon for an Irish advertising company from Aberystwyth, Wales. The balloon burst about half way into it’s forecast ascent. This meant that I had to recover the balloon in an area of upland forestry, not lowland pasture as planned. As I had my young children with me, recovery had to be left to the next day and my helpful father.

A flight in which the payload landed in upland forestry and not lowland pasture, as forecast.

A flight in which the payload landed in upland forestry and not lowland pasture, as forecast. The landing site is marked by the last red breadcrumb.

SOLUTION: It is hard to detect imperfections in a balloon that were made during manufacture. There are some things that can shorten the life of a balloon after inflation. Leaving an inflated balloon to stand for some time can lead to premature failure.

5. Parachute failure. When your parachute fails, your payload will plummet to the ground. This will not only endanger your equipment but also people on the ground. John Flaig launched a HAB flight in July 2013 in which the parachute became from it’s parachute.

the aftermath

John explained the cause of the parachute loss, “I had used a thinner walled styrofoam box for this launch. As it turned out the violent spinning and flipping that occurs when the balloon explodes proved too much. The chute yanked from its mooring, the payload plummeted unencumbered from 105,000 feet, falling at hundreds of miles an hour before slowing in the lower atmosphere and smacking the ground. The bottom of the box was crushed, the external GoPro battery sticking out of a hole, another camera lens cracked. Inside, everything had more or less held, including, thankfully, the gimbal keeping the Spot GPS facing up.”

SOLUTION: Ensure that the parachute is safely secured to the payload. Use a parachute from a reputable manufacturer. Choose a parachute with the least number of shroud lines.

6. Damage to the payload / damage by the payload. An article by the Daily Telegraph in 2010 revealed that the Met Office had paid out more than £25,000 in compensation since 2007 for damage caused by it’s radiosonde programme. The article,

sighted damage caused to conservatories, car windscreens, and power lines. Our own Freedom of information request to the Met Office showed that for 2010 to 2014, the figure for insurance claims was much less than the figure quoted by the Telegraph. In this time they had had a small number of low level claims 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.


In the world of amateur HAB information on damage to things on the ground is harder to come by. I have come across stories of payload boxes landing on roads and being hit by cars. There was also an instance in 2009 when a Met Office Radiosonde ‘crashed through a perspex roof in a school building and startled the staff and children.

Information on damage caused by people trying to recover their payloads is scarce.   I have come across stories of people lawfully paying to fell trees to recover their payload. In September 2013 I hired a set of trackers to Ian who launched a balloon from the south coast in the UK. The balloon landed in a conifer wood on the edge of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. A local land owner helped Ian by felling the tree to recover the balloon. This wasn’t great for the tree involved but the cumulative damage to the number of trees in the world caused by HAB flights cannot be that great.


7. Camera failure. Common among many HABists is the desire to see the view from ‘up high’ and HAB flights commonly carry cameras. Action cameras were one of the main driving forces in the rise in popularity of HAB. With every new iteration of the Go Pro Hero (other action cameras are available though invariably not as good) the performance of the cameras in HAB flights has improved. But cameras still fail to perform throughout the flight. They are also more or less certainly going to be subject to fogging if the lens is covered by a sealed case of some kind with air containing moisture. Icing on the camera lens has a similar effect. If the balloon operator fails to recognise this then they will fail to get the photos they want.

HAB image spoilt by fogging

HAB image spoilt by fogging

SOLUTION: Keep the camera out of sealed cases, however, you then run the risk of damage to the camera on landing.

8. Tracker / locator failure. Whether you have bought, hired, or made your own tracker, it is prone to failure. Accepting that fact, you will hopefully have a back up system. If you don’t, and your tracker fails, then often your payload is as good as lost. Tracker failure can be  electronic. A frozen battery and electronic interference caused Nicholas Janzen’s home built radio tracker to fail.

Tracker failure doesn’t have to be electronic though. It can just fail due to operator error. Last year Emily Dawson, a grade school science teacher from Illinois launched a HAb as part of a science festival for her school.



The payload of the flight included an action camera, flight computer to record climate data, and a SPOT Messenger for tracking the payload. Emily said, “The plan for recovery  and tracking was to use SPOT….but something happened between turning it on and lift off. The SPOT was tracking for almost thirty minutes. We believe we launched around


10:56…the last time the SPOT communicated. It either got bumped during the launch or it was accidentally turned off prior to being taped into the payload box. As luck would have it an extensive search along the balloon’s forecast flight path lead to the balloon being discovered. It was found in a farmers field close to the road side.

When your tracker or locator does not suit the environment that you are using it in, then expect it to fail. If you use a GMS locator in an area without mobile phone coverage then it will not tell you where your payload has landed. Similarly, if your radio tracker lands in hilly terrain then the signal will not get out for listeners to receive. Or if you operate it at a time of day when no one is listening then nobody will record the tracker location.

Finally your tracker failure may just be down to bad luck. If your SPOT tracker lands face down then more often than not it will not return your payload landing site.

SOLUTION: On radio trackers, extensive testing can weed out many of the hardware problems. Combining a the radio tracker with a PLB also ensures the operator against failure.

9. Payload landing in inaccessible places. Up a tree, in a lake, on a mountain, on top of building, in power  lines, and on MOD property. The list of possibilities is endless. While we can plan to avoid large hazards like a whole forest or town, you cannot plan to avoid smaller hazards like smaller woods or individual pylon towers. If we don’t plan our balloon flight well then the worst often happens. Most sea landings fall into this category. Sometimes sheer bad luck means that the payload lands in an inaccessible place.

This HAB flight from Lisburn in Northern Ireland landed in the sea due to ineffective flight planning.

This HAB flight from Lisburn in Northern Ireland landed in the sea due to ineffective flight planning.

SOLUTION: There is no real solution to this but being prepared for tree landings will help you if it happens.

10. Stolen payload. Balloon News has reported on many heart-warming stories about HAB payloads that get lost by the flight team, only to be found and returned to them by members of the public. It is true, however, that some people think that just because they find a HAB payload then it belongs to them. With the rise in value of cameras deployed in payloads, the temptation to steel the payloads has increased. Even when expensive cameras are not used, payloads have been known to be taken.  

I first reported on HAB theft last summer, on a case in Leicestershire. The report was made by the Group Scout Leader of the 63rd Leicester Scout Group in Leicester.  The group  finished and end of term celebration by launching a weather balloon which the scouts had been working on.  

The weather balloon was carrying a white polystyrene box (approx 30 cm wide x 20 cm deep x 25 cm high) containing a brand new Philips ESee CAM150RD video camera, a GPS tracker, a battery and a 63rd Leicester Group scarf (maroon with yellow and purple edging strips) which had been
signed by all of the children at our Group.  The box was secured with heavy duty black plastic ties. When the balloon burst, an orange & green parachute controlled the box’s descent.  The group tracked the descent and landing to a farmer’s field bordering on the canal close to where you are (North side of canal on Home Farm about 500m North of Hillmorton Locks).  As it was getting dark the scout group didn’t come to collect the box until the morning after it’s launch.  The box was found the following day, but the lid was
missing as were the plastic ties.  The base of the box was undamaged but only the tracking device and battery remained. Most importantly, the video camera, Scouting scarf and parachute were also missing.  The surrounding area was searched thoroughly but nothing else was found.  

SOLUTION: It is hard to stop the opportunist thief but the risk of theft can be reduced if you get to the landing site soon after landing. Working in a team with one group at the drop zone may help.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it does highlight that HAB flights can go wrong for a range of reasons. Some of these are within the control of the operator and some outside their control.

Comments added from UKHAS message board!topic/ukhas/K-4zi2o5KwU

Hi Chris,

I would like to add another one, based on our experience in Slovakia:
11. ATC clearance issues
Once you have CAA permission, the last go/no-go decision is up to ATC controller. He can deny your flight, or force you to launch immediately.
Example from STS-6(1) – premature burst, tracker step-up fail….
We had exact date/time window permitted by CAA upon our written request (there is not NOTAM for HAB launch here in Slovakia). Then we had to call ATC a hour before the launch. It looks like enough time to fill the balloon and make last pre-flight checks. But ATC controller said – “you must launch in five minutes, otherwise you’re denied to fly ! ” Everyone can imagine, what can be done in  5 minutes – fill the Hwoyee1600, check the payload, …. unreal 🙂 We did it during STS-6(1), but with the bad result.
Radim OM2AMR
How about:Inadequate testing (e.g. not thinking what happens when you cross the prime meridian, not testing the whole payload for EMC compatibility between GPS and GoPros)Inadequate checklists / procedures (e.g. forgetting to turn something on)Payload design problems (e.g. using a GPS which doesn’t work above 13km or not putting it into the correct mode).Not calling off the launch at the last minute when you have gone to all the trouble to drive across the country and prepare everything even though you know the weather has turned against you (you know who you are 🙂 )

“Tracker failure” is a whole encyclopedia of fails all on its own, starting with “being unfit for purpose” which definitely includes GSM trackers and to a lesser extent SPOT trackers.  Then you’ve got coding errors, physical problems (aerials falling off, batteries coming lose, single-core wires breaking).

I’m not aware of any parachute failures, and I really hope that’s not happened.  Shouldn’t be possible with an inline chute.  They can get tied up a bit by the balloon but they do still work.
When I first read this I was going to reply with a big ‘er, what?’ as many flights have had chutes that failed to open properly. And it looks like today has provided some more evidence!