High Altitude Weather Balloons (HABs)
Space and science is fun and fascinating and high altitude weather balloon provide an inexpensive opportunity to explore to upper reaches of our atmosphere from right here in Upstate New York. Overlook Horizon Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) [pending] educational organization that began in the spring of 2016 when we starting launching our first high altitude balloons (HABs) to participate annually in the Global Space Balloon Challenge. Since then, our team has expanded our program to help inspire students and adults into exploring science and technology themselves to see what they can build!
High altitude balloons (weather balloons) generally have a pretty simple setup that involves a latex balloon filled with helium (or hydrogen!), a payload filled with sensors and a parachute which allows it to safely return for retrieval. Although seemingly simple, they provide incredible opportunities for continuing education since the flights cover all areas of science and technology including earth science, meteorology, computing, engineering, mathematics and much more. Plus, we get some amazing data, photos and videos upon successful retrieval. The excitement and anticipation of sending up a near space balloon is an experience like no other!
Typically, we launch weather balloons ranging from 600g to 1500g with a payload measuring approximately 3 lb. This payload package travels through the stratosphere to a height of over 100,000 ft! Our currently record is 112,506 ft. which we achieved on OLHZN-9. At around 100,000 ft., the weather balloon expands beyond its breaking point due to the reduced external pressure in the stratosphere. At this point, the balloon breaks and the payload safely parachutes back to Earth while continuously broadcasting its location throughout the trip. Our payload contains a GPS module to register its position and altitude, a Radiometrix APRS radio transmitter to transmit its location back to us via the international Automated Packet Reporting System (APRS), 3 cameras to take photos and videos along the way, a parachute to land safely, an audible landing alarm to alert its presence, as well as some other instrumentation to record conditions during the flight: temperature (external & internal), pressure, relative launch altitude, speed, heading, etc. We use some well known weather prediction models to predict the landing site ahead of time so we can ensure the balloon lands in a safe and underpopulated spot. Hopefully, one that’s easy to get to! With any luck, we’ll recover the payload on the same day and have some awesome photos and videos to share! We live broadcast the launch and recovery operations on launch day and you can also follow the progress via APRS. If you’d like to participate or attend the launch and/or recovery operations, send us a message. Also, consider subscribing to our email updates and subscribing to our YouTube Channel for more detailed information and notifications of upcoming launches. Check out our next launch!
How do you recover the payload?
Most of the data, photos and videos are store in the onboard Arduino Mega computer so it’s essential that we recover the payload in order to gather all that information. The balloon contains a radio transmitter and a backup GPS transmitter that both report their exact position back to us on the ground. When the balloon climbs to around 100,000 ft., it will burst and then safely parachute back to Earth where we can pick it up while following its GPS transmissions.
Future Flight Plans
Our initial launches are just the first of (hopefully) many. As we become more comfortable with the process and become confident that we can recover the payloads, we have some interesting plans for future missions including testing accelerometers, adding additional cameras, taking 4K and 360 video, transmitting images and/or video live from the payload via radio signals in SSDV format, pressure and pressurization experiments, temperature experiments, high altitude gamma ray experiments, glider experiments, return-to-launch experiments, glider tests, parachute tests, microbiology experiments, air quality experiements, etc. The list can go on forever!
Safety and Regulations
Over 500,000 high altitude weather balloons are launched across the globe each year. Most are for government meteorological or research purposes, but nearly 3,000 amateur flights are also conducted every year. Although high altitude weather balloon launches can provide valuable results, care must be taken to abide by the governing laws and regulations to ensure weather balloon safety for aircraft and those that may be impacted by the launch and landing. You can read all about our safety procedures and applicable regulations we follow here.