High Altitude Balloons

Tutorials, checklists, and tools to help you launch your own high-altitude weather balloon.


Reach 100,000 ft with your own weather balloon kit

An amateur high-altitude balloon project is a great way to reach 60,000-120,000 feet with cameras and other interesting scientific experiments.

The flight involves filling a large balloon with helium and attaching a 2-4 lb payload to it. The payload will contain a tracker and equipment of your choice (such as a camera or altimeter).

Although it may sound complicated, the process is easily repeatable and costs a couple hundred dollars - as low as $150 or so if you’re especially price conscious, but probably around $300 on average.

These balloons reach a part of the stratosphere known as “near-space.” At this point, the curvature of the Earth and the black of space are clearly visible.

How to build and launch a weather balloon

As this site is under construction, you can refer to our complete guide here.

Shopping List

Here's an example shopping list that successfully flew to 120,000 feet over California's central valley.
Category Item Price Source Notes
Essentials
Balloon (350g) $40 Kaymont Balloons Can take a few weeks to ship
Parachute $40 Amazon 36" parachute or thereabouts should work well. Use descent calculator to confirm.
Thermal Cooler $8.26 Amazon
Total (Essentials) $88.26
Tracking
SPOT GPS $90 Amazon Could find one for as low as $30 on eBay. Doesn't include $100 activation fee.
Boost Mobile Phone $9.99 Boost Mobile Cheap flip phone used as backup locator. Expect roughly $10 in activation fees.
AA USB battery charger $7.20 Amazon For charging the flip phone
Micro USB cable $4.99 Amazon For charging the flip phone
Total (Tracking) $112.18
Infrastructure
Swivel hook $4 Home Depot Between box and parachute lines to mitigate tangling
Parachute cord (50 ft) $9 Amazon Connects balloon to parachute to payload box
Gorilla tape $8.47 Amazon Secures items in payload box, taping over knots
Gorilla glue $6.47 Amazon Gluing SPOT GPS to the box to make sure it faces up during flight
Rubber bands $3 Amazon For tying off balloon. Fat ones ("size #84") work best.
Total (Infrastructure) $30.94
Misc Payload
Hand Warmers $1.55 Amazon
Lithium AA batteries $10.74 Amazon Lithium batteries work best at high altitude
Lithium AAA batteries $7.99 Amazon
Total (Misc Payload) $20.28
Misc Tools
Latex gloves $6.97 Amazon Avoid touching the balloon without gloves
Hanging Scale $8.99 Amazon For measuring force exerted by the balloon. This can also been done for free with a milk jug full of water.
Tarp $7.19 Amazon Use for a clean surface at your launch site
Plastic tubing $6 Home Depot Used for connecting the helium tank nozzle to the balloon. Usually 5/8". Ideally you should measure this against your helium tank's nozzle.
Total (Misc Tools) $29.15
Total overall $280.81 There are multiple opportunities to go cheaper, but this is a good example that doesn't cut corners and has a high likelihood of success.

Tracking

Easy but expensive: SPOT GPS

Satellite GPS tracker that is expensive but more reliable than cell phones. It’s a little finicky and needs to be face up in the payload. It’s also really expensive but you can find deals on ebay and craigslist. The subscription is normally an additional $150/yr but there are promo codes that bring it down to $100.

Make sure to test beforehand with the SPOT in your box. It can take a few minutes for it to get a lock on its satellites and start blinking green. Usually it's easiest to obtain a lock when the SPOT device is either outside the box, or the top of the box is not on.

Cheaper: Accutracking on Boost Mobile

This is a much cheaper version, but it requires cell coverage along your balloon's flight path. Sign up for a free month of AccuTracking and follow these instructions to get it installed on your Kyocera Coast phone.

Once installed, open the app and input your ID to start tracking. Disable “smart sending.” Close the app by pressing End and choose the “Run in background” option. Verify on AccuTracking website that phone is being tracked.

Photography

Easy but expensive: GoPro

GoPros are designed to do best in very bright environments, so they really don’t require setup aside from from enabling Continuous Mode, which takes pictures every N seconds. Alternatively, you can just put it on video mode.

Make sure you have enough space on your GoPro SD card for whichever mode you choose (reference).

Also, if you’re capturing video, you’ll probably need an extended battery. If you’re not taking video you can make do without an extended battery. We were able to take a picture every 5 seconds on our GoPro HERO3+ without one.

Cheaper: CANON camera with Intervalometer

It's possible to buy a cheap CANON camera on eBay for $10-$30, depending on the level of quality you're looking for.

Once you've purchased a camera, you should adjust your camera’s more advanced settings and install software that takes pictures every N seconds, use CHDK. CHDK is custom firmware for Canon cameras.

To install, take your camera’s SD card, make sure it’s unlocked, and put it in your computer. There are many ways to install but the easiest is to use STICK to format and install CHDK.

Then, put this script in the SCRIPTS folder on the main partition.

After you lock your SD card and put it back in the camera, you should see CHDK show up when start. On the Canon A1100, enter the CHDK menu by pressing the round button with a circle in it.

We followed Configuring Your Camera for Flight section to adjust shutter speed, flash and etc. Although the article suggested saving pictures as RAW format, we simply saved them as JPEG.

Setup and Launch

As this site is under construction, you can refer to our complete guide here.