Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thank you so much to everyone in New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts who supported us in this project. We successfully sent two weather balloons to near space, captured incredible photographs showing the curvature of the earth, and gathered data displaying radiation peaks in the upper atmosphere. We won first place in the Champlain Valley Regional Science Fair in April and won $700, $200 of which we donated to the Rainforest Action Network.

Javier is now attending SUNY at Buffalo studying mechanical engineering with a focus in aerospace engineering. Throughout this 8-month-long project, he designed the thermal optimization system, operated the Geiger Counter software, and ensured that we were in compliance with FAA regulations. 

Thank you to the Keene Sentinel for supporting our project by posting three articles about us and encouraging the people of New Hampshire to help us find our lost balloon.

They also wrote about our disappointing trip to New Hampshire to recover a false alarm that was in fact a radiosonde belonging to the National Weather Service.

It took 8 months, but we finally recovered the data we were looking for. Though it isn't the prettiest data, it showed the trend we hypothesized a long year ago. As the balloon's altitude increased, the radiation levels generally increased, until approximately 20000m, the point at which the balloon had crossed the majority of Earth's ozone layer.


We would like to thank the following people: 
Tom and Kate Messner for allowing us to borrow their van and for funding 30% of this project
SPOT LLC. For offering us a science project discount on GPS softare
Ms. Patel-Dame for enduring our countless questions about conditions in the upper atmosphere
MIT and NASA for inspiring us to embark on this project
Ms. Patel-Dame and Mr. Mousseau for serving on our safety review committee 
Eugene Sokolovsky for recovering our balloon and payload from 60 ft high in a Massachusetts tree
The people of Hubbardston, MA for supplying us with equipment to recover our payload

Burns family for generously allowing us to stay at their house when we were unable to recover our payload before dark

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mission Beta

By Jake Messner and Javire Chia-Hsing You

On November 9, 2013 we woke up at 4:45 A.M. to drive south and launch our second weather ballooning project, Mission Beta. The new payload contained sensors with significantly improved accuracy and decreased mass.

We inflated and launched our 6’ diameter balloon in Knox Town Park in central New York.

We watched our huge balloon and red parachute sail out of view before beginning our drive west. This time, our tracking operated via GPS, which meant that FCC regulations allowed us to track the balloon while in the air. As we drove east on the Mass Pike, we watched the balloon's blip on our map hurtle across central Massachusetts. The signal stopped moving near Hubbardston, MA and we turned north to recover the payload.

As we approached the balloon, the screaming 120 dB buzzer affixed to the payload’s side alerted us to the balloon’s position. Unfortunately, the buzzing was far above our heads, where the nylon tether had become tangled 60 feet high in a pine tree.

We found ourselves in another race against the clock to get the balloon out of the tree before darkness. After a quick trip to Wal-mart, we returned to the landing site with helium, party balloons, fishing line, and a bow and arrows. A nearby resident graciously allowed up to borrow his 24-foot extension ladder and a 30-foot pole. For two hours, we worked to recover our tantalizingly close payload. We designed a pulley system that was raised by helium balloons, attempting to loop 500 lb. fishing line around the payload capsule, but the wind gusts prevented us from finding our 60-foot high target.

We strung fishing line to the arrows and shot at the parachute, but both of were poor shots and we eventually tangled all our fishing line in the various surrounding trees. In a final effort as the sun slipped below the horizon, we climbed the 24-foot ladder and raised the 30-foot pole from the top. As expected, the pole swung dishearteningly far below the dangling white box.

Disappointed, we drove east to a friend’s house (Thanks Burns family!) to spend the night, not forgetting the image of a bright red parachute swinging in the wind. That night, we drew various recovery mechanisms and discussed their possibilities. We were thrilled about our ideas…and yet it was a difficult feat to access a violently swinging prismatic container, suspended high in a tree in woods owned by the state of Massachusetts. We couldn’t harm any trees and access was difficult due to surrounding small trees and tall shrubbery in the area. When morning came, we looked for help. Eugene Sokolovsky, a professional tree climber in Worcester, agreed to hike into the woods with us and climb the tree that had ensnared our payload. For less than the cost of constructing a new recovery device, Eugene was able to quickly scale a hardwood tree nearby and pull our parachute and capsule from the pine tree.

Excited to have finally recovered our payload, we opened it on the drive home and found the following data:

We obtained timed temperature and altitude readings during the ascent. During the descent, the temperature readings were highly inaccurate due to the rapid descent rate and the g-force affecting the thermometer chip. We also suspect that the thermometer stopped taking readings at approximately 29,000 meters because it froze.

The GoPro HERO2 HD took incredible footage for the duration of the flight. We will be posting the launch and flight videos to YouTube once they have been edited (right now, we have over six hours of video). As the balloon ascended, the camera captured arial shots of the central New York area.

At 100,000 feet, the majority of Earth's atmosphere appears as a blue sliver above the horizon and the sun shines from the blackness of space.

Our balloon popped spectacularly at approximately 103,000 feet, exploding in confetti-like strands of latex.

As the balloon descended, the GoPro captured shots of Massachusetts' Quabbin Reservoir and Asnacomet Pond before falling into the woods near Hubbardston.

Along with our camera and Arduino sensors, we also recovered our geiger counter and four canisters of film from the payload capsule. We plan to analyze and graph the data from these resources in the upcoming months to determine the effectiveness and continuity of the Ozone Layer in New York and Massachusetts. In Spring of 2014, we plan to launch a third balloon mission to measure the direct correlation between levels of radiation and specific atmospheric gases. Over the winter, we'll be planning for our third launch (Mission Gamma) and compiling our research for presentation in the Spring. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mission Beta Plan

Mission Beta

On October 6, we returned to Plattsburgh without the weather balloon we had taken on our trip south.

After three weeks on the verge of giving up, we received a call from southern New Hampshire. Our balloon, “Operation Defeat Icarus”, had landed on the 7-acre property of an astrophysicist.

Five days after receiving the call, a large Styrofoam package wrapped in aluminum foil was in my mailbox. The box’s contents told the story of a 120 mile, 95,000 foot high journey to the top of the ozone layer in temperatures ranging from -60 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Our Arduino microcontroller provided data including temperature, altitude, and pressure. Radiation measurements were lost due to our long recovery time and our camera had malfunctioned. 

Only mildly deterred, we set out to improve on our project with a second balloon launch. This time, we chose the code name Mission Beta.

800g Kaymont Balloon: ($85)
This balloon is considerably larger than the 600g balloon used in Operation Defeat Icarus. It will reach a burst altitude of 100,000 feet with a payload of three pounds.
Pocket Geiger 3: ($53)
This Geiger counter pairs with an Apple device and will provide significantly more accurate readings than were recorded in Operation Defeat Icarus.
600 Film: ($6)
Film will provide a measure of relative radiation by analyzing the damage done to the film in the ozone layer. In the event that the Pocket Geiger fails, the film will provide a secondary radiation meter.
Styrofoam Capsule: ($3)
Styrofoam will provide insulation and a confined payload package for all materials.
Chemical Hand Warmers: ($2)
Handwarmers will prevent the electronics from freezing at the -60 degree Fahrenheit temperatures at 30,000 feet. We will used fewer handwarmers than in Operation Defeat Icarus to conserve mass and because our new electronics are more weather-resistant.
GoPro HERO2 HD and 32GB Memory Card: ($205)
A GoPro will take high quality HD video recording of the capsule’s journey into near-space. Separating our camera from our tracking device will help conserve the battery life of both devices as well as providing higher quality data. The GoPro contains a 32 GB memory card that can hold approximately 16 high definition recording, significantly more than will be necessary for the flight.
~40 lb. Nylon Cord: ($6)
During Mission Beta, we will use a cord with an approximately 40 lb. break strength as opposed to the 25 lb. break strength cord used in Operation Defeat Icarus. This will ensure that the payload will not detach from the balloon during the descent or in strong thermal winds.
iPhone 4/iPod Touch: (already owned)
The Apple device will work as an interface for the Pocket Geiger, allowing it to record and log data for the entire flight time. If we use an iPhone 4 as the interface, we will also use it to run the application Find My iPhone in order to locate the phone should it fall in an area of AT&T cellular coverage.
SPOT 2 PLB: ($57 and $99 plan)
The SPOT 2 will be our primary tracking device. It used GPS signals to allow for online tracking. This device will be necessary should the payload fall in an area without any cellular coverage.
Helium: (~$175)
We will obtain our helium supply from Huan Welding or from Airgas in Plattsburgh. During Operation Defeat Icarus, we used an entire 60 ft3 tank, an entire 8.9 ft3 tank, and half of a second 8.9 ft3 tank for an approximate total of 74 ft3 of helium. This volume of helium filled the 500g balloon to an approximate diameter of 5 feet. For Mission Beta, we will inflate the balloon to an approximate diameter of 6 feet, an increase in volume by a factor of 1.728. It will require 127.88 ft3 of helium to inflate the balloon.  

The device will be tracked using two methods: Find My iPhone and the SPOT 2 GPS signal. These tracking methods overlap in coverage area, but each has unique qualities that make it useful. Find My iPhone relies on cellular service. The SPOT 2 operates anywhere in the continental United States, although the signal does not have a strong enough frequency to penetrate dense foliage or buildings. This will make the cell phone tracking devices more useful if the payload lands in an area in which a direct view of the sky is obscured. The SPOT 2 will be most useful if the payload lands in an area covered by neither Boost Mobile nor AT&T cellular service. Given our two tracking devices and their independent functionality, we estimate our chances of picking up a reliable signal upon landing at 90%.

The primary function of our payload will be to measure radiation in the Ozone Layer. The Ozone Layer extends from 13 to 17 miles high in the atmosphere, altitudes that our balloon will fly through the entirety of. Our Pocket Geiger will take radiation readings from launch; we hypothesize that these readings will begin increasing at an altitude of approximately 68,700 feet and will come to a stable level at an altitude of approximately 90,000 feet. This hypothesis can be explained by solar radiation filtering occurring in the ozone layer. We will additionally analyze radiation levels below the ozone layer to compare our findings to findings of others who theorize the presence of radiation bands throughout Earth’s atmosphere.

The entire flight will be recorded using the GoPro HERO2 HD. The GoPro runs from a lithium battery that will easily sustain the cold with heat provided from chemical handwarmers. The photography taken during the flight will help us estimate the popping altitude of the balloon using timestamps and will deliver stunning views of Earth from over 18 miles high. Additionally, we are hoping to use the photography to observe the curvature of Earth.

The launch will take place on November 9, 10, or 11. We have proven the weather balloon tracking website to be accurate in the past, so we will use this site to estimate the trajectory of our balloon’s flight. We will choose the day with the shortest expected weather balloon trajectory to minimize our recovery distance.

Flight Path:
After an analysis of cellular service in the northeastern United States, we have determined eastern Massachusetts to have the strongest AT&T cellular coverage. The cellular coverage map is shown below:

For this reason, we will estimate the recovery site of the payload to be near Worcester, MA. By using prediction information from, we will choose a launch site that corresponds to a recovery site near this area. If the Jet Stream remains normal during this weekend, the launch site is expected to be near Albany, NY.

Western Massachusetts has very few bodies of water to cause concern, aside from the Atlantic Ocean in the east. The only major body of water near the estimated landing site is the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. We expect our balloon to fly over the width of the reservoir such that it lands near Worcester, MA. The areas surrounding Worcester are composed of fairly thinly wooded property and farmland. We will bring a 30’ pole to the landing site to prepare for potential recovery from a tall tree. 

If we are able to successfully measure and analyze radiation in the upper atmosphere, we plan to present at the New York State Science and Engineering Fair in March and the Champlain Valley Regional Science Fair in April. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Thanks to help from the Keene Sentinel and the people of southern New Hampshire, our balloon's red parachute was spotted in a clearing and we were contacted on October 24, 2013. We were thrilled to learn that our balloon had landed in a meadow without damage to the exterior of the payload capsule. The balloon's landing site is shown below.

We rushed home to open the package when it arrived in the mail from Bennington, New Hampshire. After cutting the duct tape sealing the capsule, we were excited to find that all the components were present and intact after their 200 kilometer flight and three weeks in the elements. After surviving nearly three weeks of rain, high winds, and below-feezing temperatures, we were shocked to find that many of the electronics turned on.

Upon closer examination, we were not so fortunate. The photos captured by the iPhone 4 were poor quality and the phone had a large damage mark in the center of the screen. 

We were, however, able to upload over 1,000 data points from the Arduino, which had recorded the capsule's altitude and the temperature and pressure of the upper atmosphere. We will be graphing these points and writing accompanying reports for our presentation at the New York State Science and Engineering Fair in 2014.

As for the future, we are preparing to launch a second balloon payload in mid-Novemver, 2014. After learning from our first launch, we have revised our payload design extensively and will be utilizing more advanced and lighter equipment. Our second launch, code named Mission Beta, will take more accurate readings of radiation throughout the Ozone Layer and will incorporate three tracking systems to ensure that its landing site is precisely recorded, making the balloon more easily locatable. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Launch Day

The weather looked suitable for launch on Sunday, October 6. To avoid the strongest part of the jet stream and to have a projected landing in a zone of strong cell reception, we drove south to Saratoga Springs. We assembled the time sensitive contents of the capsule in Saratoga Springs, but the launch was delayed due to a rain shower. To avoid tall cloud decks and light rain, we made a last minute decision to drive west and to launch from Amsterdam, NY. The contents of the finalized capsule were as follows: iPhone for tracking and photography, altitude sensor, temperature sensor, microcontroller, chemical hand warmers, tracking device, altoids mints, a simple geiger counter and external iPhone batteries. Exposed and unexposed polaroid film was attached to the capsule to analyze relative radiation in the upper stratosphere. The contents were sealed in the styrofoam capsule with hot glue and duct tape. A note was affixed to the exterior of the capsule with our contact information in case someone else located the capsule. 

We inflated the balloon in a park in Amsterdam and connected the parachute and capsule. Nervously, we released the balloon and watched our beloved sensors soar into a cloud deck. 

After the launch, we drove east to Saratoga Springs and waited out the flight time in a coffee shop. After 3 hours 22 minutes, a signal appeared on our portable tracking equipment. The iPhone had been located by cell towers just southeast of Stoddard, NH. We ran to the car and began the three hour drive east. During the drive, we received updated location information and were able to call the iPhone, confirming that it was still functional, despite its plunge from 90,000 feet and the frigid temperatures of the upper atmosphere. The software pinned the coordinates of the iPhone at 43.042184, -72.041516, about 1 1/2 miles east of the northern tip of the Robb Reservoir. Unfortunately, these coordinates are only expected to be accurate to about 1 1/2 miles due to the poor cellular reception in the area. We arrived in Stoddard at 5:30 P.M and hiked into the woods. The Robb Reservoir is surrounded by beautiful hiking trails, which made the search much more convenient. We reached the designated coordinates as the sun was setting but we were unable to locate the device in an hour of searching. Disappointed, we hiked out to the main road and returned to New York. 

Now, we want your help to find the balloon! The balloon is white and is affixed to a Styrofoam capsule with dimensions approximately 12in x 4in x 5 in. Between the balloon skin and research capsule, there is a bright red parachute with a 36 in diameter that should be easily visible. We would be thrilled to reward $100 for the safe return of this capsule if anyone is able to locate it in the woods. The Robb Reservoir is surrounded by beautiful hiking trails, which pass through the area the balloon may be located within. A map of the landing area is shown below:

If anyone is able to locate the balloon or would like more information, they should call Javier's phone at (310)795-0813. We would be extremely appreciative of any help from the people of New Hampshire!

Jake Messner

Monday, October 7, 2013

Operation Defeat Icarus Plan

Operation Defeat Icarus

By Jake Messner

Objective: Launch a payload to the edge of space to take photographs and measure radiation, temperature, and pressure.


Weather Balloon: We will use a 5’ diameter weather balloon that will expand to a 20’ diameter in the upper atmosphere due to decreasing air pressure.
iPhone 4
Software: Frontback, duocam, intercam
We will perform tests regarding battery life and will need photography software.
GPS software
Pressure and Altitude Sensor
Arduino Microcontroller
Noise Device
Payload basket
Nylon Rope
Helium tank(s)
We will need ~75 cu ft of helium. 
External iPhone Battery
An external battery will ensure that the iPhone battery survives through the entire flight and gives us additional time to locate the device once it has landed. Batteries cost ~$3 for 2200mAh.
Chemical Hand Warmers
Aluminum Foil Radar Reflectors

Intro: In 2009, MIT students launched a weather balloon to 93,000 feet and photographed the Earth from the edge of space. We set out to reduce the cost of this project and add a radiation detector, thermometer, altimeter, and barometer to the payload. While the cost of our weather balloon and helium will be similar, we can reduce the cost of the electronics by using a device including both camera and GPS. We will use a GPS operating via cellular signal rather than satellite such that we will be able to locate the device whether or not it has an unobscured view of the sky. By adding a thermometer to the payload, within view of the camera, we will be able to track changes in temperature over time as the balloon rises. We expect the balloon to reach the upper stratosphere before popping due to low air density. In the event that the balloon does not pop and is neutrally buoyant, resulting from low air density, we will activate a popping mechanism.

In compliance with FAA regulations, the balloon will have a payload weighing less than four pounds, be less than six feet in diameter, be launched more than 15 miles from an airport, and have a tension of less than 50 pounds to disconnect the payload.

In keeping with the spirit set by MIT students Oliver YehJustin Lee, and Eric Newton, we will document our spending as the project progresses with the ultimate goal of spending less than $148 on components used in the final project.

Launch Location: The balloon will be launched from Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY. This site will allow for a large radius of area with strong cell coverage. 

Weather: While winds aloft in New York State blow west to east most frequently, the optimal launch conditions are in a northwest wind aloft.


We will not launch in a strong south wind due to the potential of flying into Canadian airspace.

In order to locate the balloon, we will include an iPhone equipped with GPS tracking software in the payload. This software should pin the location of the device to within approximately ten meters. We will additionally include an auditory alarm, in case the GPS cannot locate the device with sufficient accuracy. The iPhone (4) will be fitted with a microSIM card and will therefore require cellular service to broadcast a signal. Cellular service via AT&T can be seen on the map below.

Photos/Video and Battery Life: Data options include taking photos at scheduled intervals or recording video for the duration of the flight. The options would be equally stressful on the battery life of the iPhone, although recording video may fill the Phone’s 8GB of memory before the flight is over.

The iPhone’s battery life is 131 minutes while recording video on standard settings. By writing out own application, we will dim the screen while taking video and likely save 10-15% of the battery life, increasing the life expectancy to at least 144 minutes. Previous near-space photography flights have lasted from 100 minutes to 240 minutes. We intend to design a light capsule and use sufficient helium to keep the expected flight time under 120 minutes. By adding an external iPhone battery, we should be able to increase the life of the battery by at least 80%, creating a new life expectancy of at least 260 minutes. Depending on how much the battery life is hindered by the temperatures experienced during the flight, this expectancy should allow for 30 to 140 minutes to search for the capsule once it has landed.

Freezer Test: iPhone was placed in freezer with PMC battery plugged in and battery at 22%. Phone charged to 45% before shutting off due to the cold. After being removed from freezer after 60 minutes, phone turned on in 4 minutes. Charger lights remained on through entire test, apparently unaffected by cold.  

After two months of research, drawing, and assembly, we are prepared to launch our balloon on October 6, 2013.