A home for the weird and wacky in the weather ballooning world. Send your pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org
21st September 2015
Hackers Launch Balloon Probe Into the Stratosphere to Spy on Drones
One small crew of hackers is trying to pierce that stratospheric secrecy zone with a high-altitude flying—or at least floating—machine of their own. The three members of a socially motivated movement of technologists known as Critical Engineering have developed and begun testing an “aerospace probe” they call the Deep Sweep. The invention, described in their own detailed writeup, is a 1-foot-diameter acrylic orb packed with radio equipment and attached to a 8.2-foot diameter helium-filled weather balloon. As it floats up more than 15 miles into the earth’s atmosphere, the probe’s antennae are designed to record a wide range of radio data to be analyzed when the probe is recovered hours or days later. The project’s goal: to pioneer a new form of public, crowd-sourced data collection for tracking the communications of a secret layer of government sky machines—drones, satellites and high-altitude planes.
“The core point of the project is to build a low-cost platform for high-altitude signals intelligence for the rest of us,” says Julian Oliver, a Berlin-based artist and hacker who launched the project along with fellow creators Bengt Sjöle and Danja Vasiliev. “It’s about creating an interface to read the signals in the skies above us, to understand what’s going on up there.”
The group’s DIY probe was built with three software defined radios, three antennae all listening to different parts of the radio frequency spectrum, a Gopro camera, a GPS module, temperature and pressure sensors, a SIM card for communicating with the team via SMS, and an insulated battery. All of that is integrated with an Arduino board, a USB hub, an Intel Edison minicomputer and open-source software. The cheap design is intended to encourage other amateurs to build high-flying probes of their own: Oliver says the entire setup cost less than $300—though they hope use even cheaper components in future versions—with another $200 for the balloon plus the helium to fill it.
As a final touch, the team constructed the orb’s shell from a pair of parabolic mirrored surveillance camera covers—the kind used on the ceilings of retail stores and banks. “We thought that suited the project very nicely,” Oliver says.
So far, the Critical Engineers have staged two test-launches of their spy balloon. Here’s how it works: When the probe rises to an altitude of around 17 or 18 miles, reduced atmospheric air pressure causes the balloon carrying it to burst (after expanding to nearly 10 times its original volume.) Then the probe releases a nylon parachute and floats safely back to earth. Once it’s back in cell tower range, it sends a text message to its creators signaling its arrival and sharing its landing location.
The tests had mixed results. Its first balloon flight from the eastern German city Frankfurt am Oder in August landed in a Polish field. When they tracked down and recovered the device after a long, pre-dawn drive, they found that its power source had failed just seven minutes into the flight, cutting short its data collection.
Their second launch later the same month was more fruitful, despite a different set of problems: They released the balloon from Magdeburg, Germany, expecting that it would again land in Poland. Instead, during a long period when the probe lost cell signal, the wind pulled it more more than 600 miles east, at some points dragging it through the sky as fast as 87 miles an hour. “It was a bit of a desperate feeling,” says Oliver. “You get quite attached to the thing. When we finally got an SMS from it the following morning, we were pretty happy people.”
The probe had landed in a cornfield near Minsk, Belarus. Since Belarus’s dictatorship doesn’t keep an open border with the EU, the team had to enlist the help of a friend with Belarusian contacts to rescue it. Despite their initial suspicions that the shiny sphere’s creators were state spies rather than amateur hackers, a Belarusian couple eventually retrieved the probe and offloaded its data over the Internet to Critical Engineering’s server in Sweden. (One of the two Belarusians traveled this month to Stockholm via a ferry from Estonia to deliver the probe back to its owners.)
The data from that first successful test-flight, available for download here and built into a set of data visualizations here, is intended to be the start of a public, crowdsourced collection. Oliver says the group plans to create a wiki for publishing the results of any future probe launches, both those by his Critical Engineering team and anyone else who launches a stratospheric radio balloon of their own.
And just what do Deep Sweep’s creators think they’ll find in their probe project’s potential trove of radio data? Oliver says they hope to pick up threads of conversation between government agencies and flying machines that range from Predator and Reaper drones to stringray-toting surveillance planes to spy satellites like those launched by the U.S.’s secretive National Reconnaissance Office. Those radio conversations are no doubt encrypted, and Oliver says the group has no illusions that they’ll be able to peer into the content of the communications. But they do hope they’ll eventually be able to at least recognize the presence of secret sky devices talking to the ground or satellites overhead, and even possibly learn to “fingerprint” and distinguish them.
Oliver hopes that the Deep Sweep project might be the beginning of a new amateur community of high-altitude radio enthusiasts who monitor the radio frequencies of the skyscape the same way that Ham radio hobbyists have monitored and transmitted ground-based communications for decades.
“What the Ham radio scene does here on earth…we want to do the same thing at the edge of space. Because that’s where a hell of a lot of really interesting and dubious things are happening,” says Oliver. “There’s no other way of getting to the bottom of it all than by getting up there.”
1st August 2015
Creativity takes flight
Students from The Baird Primary Academy, Hastings have sent a Puffin fantasy book into near-space to promote literacy and creativity. They have retrieved the footage of the space launch and edited it into an (awesome!) video.
YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faUh3_5CFfA
‘At The Baird Primary Academy, we are willing to go ‘above and beyond’ to ensure that Every Child Succeeds. Give us seven minutes of your time and we’ll show you an epic journey, including: inspired students, a Puffin fantasy book that’s out of this world, an adventure across the channel to recover the payload before it sank and, most importantly, the impact of our determination in raising pupils’ progress rates in reading.’
Katherin Weeks, Vice Principal.
Acrobatic author Marcus Alexander has been supporting the Baird Primary Academy as a Patron of Reading. Upon hearing one of the students remark, ‘When I read Keeper of the Realms I feel as though I’m taken out of this world…’ Marcus and the school Leadership Team thought this was the perfect opportunity to create a project that would tie students’ key subjects of Maths, Physics, Geography, Engineering and IT to the importance of literacy and creativity.
‘Above all this project #CreativityTakesFlight is a drive for reading. By sending a book into space students have reinforced the importance of literacy and the principle that books can inspire dreams.’ Marcus Alexander
The Baird Primary Principal, Ms Tenn, says ‘3 out of 10 girls do not own a book at home, and 4 out of 10 boys do not own a book at home. This project is helping make reading exciting and highlight the importance of where literacy can take you – literally into outer space.’
In conjunction with the Academy’s Improvement Plan, the project produced phenomenal results. Over the year literacy rates soared:
• 93% year 6 students made expected progress in reading
• 89% year 5 students made expected progress in reading
• Overall The Baird Primary Academy saw a 24% increase in reading compared to the previous year’s published figures.
Full project details: http://whoischarliekeeper.com/creativity-takes-flight
The Baird Academy: http://www.thebairdprimaryacademy.org.uk/
Keeper of the Realms: http://whoischarliekeeper.com/
Acrobatic and adrenaline author video: https://youtu.be/wkwOMeNS5yM
6th February 2015
This video dates from 2008 but I have just come across it. It highlights the hazards of using Hydrogen to fill weather balloons.
Details about the shirt film can be found by opening it in Youtube.
13th October 2014
While this video is two years old I think the nature of this project is very odd. Traditionally fireworks were let off at night and we looked up at them. This is certainly an odd way of looking at the fireworks display, so is well worth putting in the odd box.
25th August 2014
Tied of comfortable and clean offices with mains electricity, these American ‘aerospace engineers’ took a 3D printer on a HAB flight to print something in the Stratosphere. In true odd box style there was something truely odd going on in their payload box.
An 18’s and over entertainment doll in space. Well it isn’t the most explicit thing in near space but Balloon News is family friendly web site. But if you want want more of this brand of HAB then read this article. Over 18’s only.
But if you want want more of this brand of HAB then read this article. Over 18’s only.
Friends School Lisburn did a HAB flight in April. The payload box was lost over the Irish sea but turned up on a Scottish beach. Here is the video the school made of the adventure.
It was only a matter of time before Santa turned up in the Odd box. Well done Startodean http://www.stratodean.co.uk/
Well done Jon Chippindall, 31 and entrepreneur Ian Cunningham, 29. One of probably many HAB flights to honour the release of the film, ‘Gravity’.
It was only a matter of time before the UFO fakers got into high altitude ballooning.
After reporting on the Odd Box, I thought it was about time I made an entry as well.
Kyle Andrews used a HAB flight with an Ipad payload to promote his music video, ‘The Way to Wonder’.
What I wonder about Kyle, is the safety and permission of the flight. It looks too close to an airport to me.
Shoe in near space. What other items of clothing will follow next? HAB flight by Earth to sky Calculus.
Condom Radio Sondes? It is April 1st 2013 but this is no joke 🙂 !
Anders Petersson used a condom as the balloon to test his palm size Windsond radio sonde.
Here is Anders description in his own words. “The team and I launched a sond a few days ago by inflating a condom with helium. Condoms are much lighter than regular balloons but above all they improve the mood of the mission participants considerably. The helium volume was estimated to 17 liters. This gave an average ascent rate of 1.5 m/s. The ascent rate given the neck lift 15.1g should be 1.0 m/s so the shape of the condom probably helped to improve the speed.
The condom burst a bit prematurely at 2400m AGL, a few hundred meters before the sond was instructed to let go. The temperature had dropped from 0*C on the ground to -12.4*C at this altitude. Although it’s doubtful condoms are designed to “operate” at freezing temperatures, the gas expansion at the altitude is the probable cause of the burst. On the other hand, a ground test showed a condom of the same model could contain over 40 liters of air before popping but maybe there are variations between copies. I considered to write a complaint to the manufacturer over this blatant product failure.
The launch was done in the evening, after dark. While the sond was still falling, I activated the beacon strobe by a button in the GUI. We were still 3-4 km away from the falling payload but the brief flashes of light were clearly visible, like a shooting star. The sond landed 65 m from the location originally predicted at 2400m altitude. In the dark, the blinking was very effective to locate the sond. The whole enclosure lit up and illuminated a meter of the ground around it. In the open landscape, the beeping was faintly audible at 200 m distance.”
As boring as watching paint dry? Waiting for paint balls to explode. March 2013
Bemidji Middle school, USA, use a HAB to test the effect of atmospheric pressure on paint balls.
If you can’t wait to know what happened to the paint balls, or can’t stand the siren, then the ‘critical’ moment then fast forward to the 8th minute of the video.
Red nose in a hamster ball ? – March 2013 This is a nice little publicity stunt by BBC Scotland and Strathclyde University … but I thought red nose day was there to raise money… not spend it .
Balloon Burst March 2012 (a picture from last year but it was a cool one)
More Near Space food anyone? January 18th 2013
This weeks Slovak HAB project testing our a Raspberry Pi powered camera sensor also had a rather unusual addition to it’s payload… the national dish from the Slovak Republic.
For more information about the HAB flight go to
Ramin from STSPROJECT (http://stsproject.net/) explained the strange addition to the payload, “Our flight (just gas and balloon) is the first time sponsored by someone – technical section of the one of the biggest Slovak newspaper –http://tech.sme.sk. It should be their anniversary flight – 20 years of SME newspaper.
Our press sponsor decided to send to the stratosphere their newspaper title page and traditional Slovak dish – dumplings with the sheep cheese. As you can see, these dumplings are little bit smaller than gnocchi. For Slovak people are these dumplings/gnocchi like pizza or pasta for Italian people.”
Umbrellachute January 2013
Unhappy with their parachute from Project Aether, some school children from Cockermouth built their own from an umbrella. 10/10 for your clever design!
January 12th 2013 Tardis… surely it was only a matter of time
This launch was done for Stargazing live 2013. It was organised by Carl Jones from Stourbridge. Well done Carl, a great recreation of some of the early BBC special effects. More information can be found about this launch at the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tardis-The-Edge-of-Space-Project/397739020251288
The vegetable payload – March 2012
May 2012 WildMan Bill couldn’t get helium so he…you won’t believe this … used his home natural gas supply.
*DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME. THERE IS A HUGE RISK OF EXPLOSION AND INJURY*
May 2012 -Space Camping
Action man, Cindy and their friends go camping in the great British summer.
What was he trying to do with his leaf blower? June 2012
Sushi on a Payload -July 2012
15th September 2012 One leg lamp on payload…surely the sun is bright enough?
For more of this go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJMAQBin2Nw
18th October 2012 The first of what will probably be many ‘Felix Baumgartner’ Imitations
For more of this go to http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/felix-baumgartner-jump-recreated-in-lego-1380587
What happens to marshmallows in near space?
What happens to marshmallows in the low pressure of nearspace? A question which often keeps me awake at night. Fortunately a teenager from Illinois, USA has answered the question during a nearspace flight. Here are the marshmallows and this is the result. For more details go to http://www.projectblacksky.com/index.html
November 5th 2012
Obama and Romney in pre election Weather balloon trip
“We estimate that the balloon reached 120,000 [feet],” Earth to Sky Calculus, a group of middle- and high-schoolers from Bishop, Calif., wrote on Facebook Wednesday. “It was a crystal clear, gorgeous fall day in the western United States!”
Onboard cameras documented the flight, recording the dolls’ rise into the skies over east-central California and their dizzying descent after the balloon popped high above the Earth.
One video of the Obama and Romney dolls’ flight, in fact, captures the transition from serenity to chaos after the balloon pops. The Obama doll’s head is peacefully surveying the desert-mountain landscape one moment and bobbling furiously the next.
Earth to Sky Calculus eventually tracked down the fallen balloon and recovered its payload, group members said on Facebook.
Monday’s launch wasn’t the first balloon flight for some of the Bishop school kids. They also lofted a balloon in early September, as part of a project called The Golden iPod.
The students of the Earth to Sky project sent a bobblehead doll of President Obama flying on a weather balloon over Owens Valley, CA, on Nov. 5, 2012, in honor of Election Day.
The Golden iPod is a nod to the Golden Records aboard NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, which launched in 1977 and are now nearing the edge of interstellar space. The records are meant to provide any aliens who may come across them an introduction to our species and our planet; they contain selections of some of our most celebrated music, greetings in 55 different human languages and much more.
The Golden iPod project aims to fill a 16-gigabyte mp3 player with more indicators and accomplishments of human culture, then launch it to Earth orbit in 2013.
“We plan to fill our iPod with the best humanity has to offer — old and new,” team member Anna Herbst said in a statement. “Then, if all goes as planned, we’re going to send it to space.”
Before it leaves the planet, the Golden iPod will visit the stratosphere during a series of high-altitude balloon flights, team members said. The first flight took place Sept. 5.
Fast food in Near Space….more food for the migrating birds
5th November 2012
Harvard students put hamburger into near space. With the help of Boston-area burger chain b.good, five friends from Harvard conducted their burger launch on October 27 from Sturbridge, Massachusetts. To keep the burger solid and stable, they coated the two-day old burger with spray-on varnish, glued it together, and screwed it to an acrylic board. They attached the board to a box containing a GoPro Hero and an HTC Rezound phone, and secured the box to a helium-filled, 600 gram weather balloon.This was all to help advertise the b.good restaurant but if you see the state of the burger then it is hardly a good advert for tasty eating. And who ever said gifted students don’t really take advantage of their education.
For more info go to http://www.bgood.com/ournewsletters.php and if you eat at this restaurant, make sure you don’t eat a burger that looks like this.