I started visiting Bit-tech back in 2001 when I was looking into building my first computer and I joined up in 2003. Years of happy building, modding and upgrading followed (much cheesecake was eaten). As time has gone on the pressures of moving home, moving from university into work and starting a family have meant I haven’t had as much to contribute but I continue to read the site and the forum regularly. Since joining Bit-tech I have become a teacher and my job has kept me very busy but I miss having a project. In January I started following ‘MIT: Hack the Tubes’ and saw Erin King’s near space balloon project. I hadn’t seen anything like it before and my first thought was ‘I could do that!’ I started to research my idea and stumbled upon other groups who had carried out similar projects in the UK. As my research progressed the project evolved in my head and I decided that if I would enjoy it, my pupils would love it (I teach mechanics and mathematics). I drafted an outline of the new, bigger project and arranged to see my headmaster who gave me the green light and some initial capital. I have assembled a team of 18 pupils and we have founded the school’s near space exploration club (dubbed ‘Horizon’ as a result of a school competition). Over the coming year we plan to design, build and launch a series of projects, carried by weather balloon, into the stratosphere (we’re aiming for 28-35km above the Earth’s surface initially). The pupils have been organised into four departments: - Publicity and fundraising (Designing and running both a sponsorship campaign and a publicity campaign) - Balloon team ( responsible for the overall build, radio tracking, launch, retrieval, weather advice and flight predictions) - Payload team (responsible for designing and building our Arduino based flight computers, sensor arrays and any scientific experiments pupils come up with) - IT and Media (Our website design, twitter account, video production and photo editing) The team structure is as flat as possible with a central online storage repository being used by all team members to store a diary of their work and any information turned up by their research. I know this isn’t strictly a pc build project so it cannot go in the project logs but as it will include the building of two custom in-flight computers (Tracking and Environmental Monitoring) it would be suitable for the modding section. The first box of electronics has arrived today (I bought a bit of new kit to supplement my old modding box). I’ll be buying two identical kits for the payload team after the Easter holidays so that they can get used to the Arduino. I’ll keep you posted on my progress with my Arduino Uno over the Easter break (it’s the first time that I will have used it). For now, that’s all folks! ::edit - electronics kit photo added:: 27/03/2012 - Our first team meeting and our first radio Our first team meeting went well, the excitement is palpable. everyone is off to do research over the Easter holidays. We have also received the offer of a Radio loan from Cambridge University which I have gratefully accepted. It is a Yaesu FT790R and would have set us back more than £140 if we'd had to get it ourselves. This means we now have a radio for testing the flight computer and for tracking the payload once it is airbourne. 15/04/12 - Arduino Projects and our new Camera Ahh the holidays! Unfortunately I've been ill for most of the past two weeks thanks to the strain of Norwalk virus currently doing the rounds in the UK. I have started to learn the language which underpins the Arduino board (its a lot like C apparently). So far I've been messing around with LED projects, variables, logic tests and using the serial bus to communicate with the board. My next project involves using an IC (first time I have ever done this!) to drive a motor. We secured a camera for the project, it's a Canon A560. It doesn't look like much but it will run off Lithium AA batteries (to keep it working in temperatures below -50C) and we'll be tinkering with its firmware (using CHDK) so that it will do our bidding. 20/04/12 - Our first sponsor and the payload team meet my electronics kit With exams looming for seven of my nine classes I'm being kept very busy marking past papers, preparing exam practice questions and designing revision ressources. Although I haven't had any more time with the Arduino I have found time to write letters to potential sponsors. The first reply came back today from Chris at Rapid Electronics. They were very enthusiastic about the project and not only have they offered to sponsor us by providing much of the electronics required but they are also going to put us in touch with someone they know in the field of High Altitude Ballooning who may be able to offer some guidance for the project. A big thank you to Chris and the team over at Rapid for their generosity and kindness. I introduced the pupils in the payload team to my electronics kit and the two laptops donated to us by our school ICT Support Team. Watching their smiles as they hunted through the boxes of LCDs, ICs, LEDs, resistors and sensors was great and took me back to my first PC build. They looked like they had been handed the keys to the toyshop and told to go nuts. I'm looking forward to see them get stuck in and start building projects, I don't think it'll take them very long to get the hang of programming the Arduino. 16/05/12 – New electronics kits The parcel of electronics arrived from Rapid Electronics today: We now have nearly everything we need to build the flight computer and the environmental monitoring computer. 18/05/12 – Examination break The project teams will be taking a break for four weeks whilst they sit their A-Level exams. We plan to get going again on Monday 18th June once the exams are over. 28/05/12 – Last of the electronics components ordered We put in orders for the more specialist components today; the GPS chip and aerial, the radio chip, the Arduino Mini and the radio antenna (for the flight computer). Hopefully they will arrive just after half term. 11/06/12 – Last of the electronics components arrive The last of the electronics components arrived today. They make up most of the components of the flight computer and will transmit GPS data back to earth. From left to right: The Arduino Mini Pro (brains of the flight computer), Radiometrix NXT2 Radio Module and the uBlox Max 6 module with a Sarantel Antenna. 26/06/12 – Project Horizon online Thanks to our ICT Team members the facebook page, twitter feed and website are officially live today. They are only skeleton accounts at present and are waiting for content but all news will be online from this point forward. 13/09/12 – Summer Break and a fresh start With the summer over we gathered the whole team and set out the project goals for the next term. There is a lot to do now that the research phase is over. To break up the work, each team has received a list of tasks to divide up amongst themselves. The main goals for this term are to get the website up-to-date, build the flight computer and sensor array, and start the fundraising campaign as we must find half of our capital ourselves. 24/09/12 – Our secret benefactor I received a surprise visit from the Headmaster this morning to tell me that a parent, who wished to remain anonymous, had made a donation to our project! This is superb news and takes us much closer to our funding target. We may even be able to buy our own radio which would mean I could offer this project to other year groups. Apparently they were one of the many people I talked to when we had an event at the school last Friday. My team is over the moon that we are so close to our target (we’ve still got a little way to go but it’s manageable). 25/09/12 – A big step forward The payload team have been hard at work learning how to build circuits and control them using the Arduino. Tonight they made a huge leap forward and built the first section of our flight computer. They built a radio transmitter circuit and connected it to an Arduino. They programmed the Arduino to send a text string as an audio pulse using the radio module. On the other side of the room we had a radio connected to a soundcard and laptop. This setup enabled us to receive the signal and translate it back into text. After a brief moment of panic filled with the static of dead air we realised that one of the resistors in the transmission circuit was grounding against the casing of the radio module and as soon as this was corrected the signal was received loud and clear. The radio transmitter will be attached to a GPS circuit which will send the data to the Arduino which will then transmit it using the radio circuit. This transmitter will have a range of 50km or more and our intended altitude is 28-30km. Next on the to-do list is to build a GPS circuit, get a 3D fix on the GPS and read the details using the Arduino. 26/09/12 – Fundraising events planned The Sponsorship and Publicity Team have planned two events for this term; a Samosa Sale (bought in from a local restaurant that caters weddings etc so are used to dealing with volume orders) and a bag packing event at a local supermarket (closer to Christmas). They are now in the process of making bookings and working out the finer detail. The money we raise will help buy equipment which can be used in future projects and fund future launches. We are still hopeful that we may find a few new sponsors as Project Horizon gathers momentum and publicity. We are still trying to find a company willing to sponsor us a Go Pro Hero. 27/09/12 – F.A.Q., interviews and photos Over the next two weeks the ICT and Media team will be organising a whole team photo, interviewing the individual team members and planning the next iteration of the website (the current iteration was only meant to be temporary and has not changed for a while due to exams followed by a long summer break). I have done my part and written a F.A.Q.: Where does your budget come from? We were lucky to receive a kind donation of start-up capital from the school and the rest we plan to raise ourselves. We are hoping to buy our own radio so that we can continue to offer this project to other groups and we would also like a High Definition Extreme Sports Video Camera so that we can film the balloon’s journey. Once the initial equipment is bought, future flights will cost approximately £230 (including diesel for the minibus which is used to recover the project once it lands). Is the project just for people who want to be scientists and engineers? There are currently four teams working on the different aspects of the project. The teams are composed of pupils with a wide variety of interests and skills. The publicity and sponsorship team design and run the fundraising and sponsorship campaign to raise funds for our equipment. They will also help the ICT and Media team with news for our Facebook page and Twitter account. Once the funding has been raised and the project is being tested they will run a publicity campaign to raise media awareness of what we are doing. The balloon team have a diverse set of skills and all of them have very different roles. Two of them plan and build the complete structure of the balloon, its payload and all of the linkages in between. One of them will plan and run the launch day. He or she must try to identify problems and find solutions before they occur. Another team member will handle the ground based tracking equipment and make sure we know where the balloon is at all times during the flight. Lastly, our meteorologist monitors weather patterns, adjusts the amount of helium in the balloon, gives the final okay for launch and predicts the final landing location. The payload team design, build, programme and test the project’s computer systems. They have to build a flight computer which will read GPS information and transmit it back to Earth. They also have to construct an Environmental Sensor Array that will take regular measurements of atmospheric conditions and store them on a flash memory card. Once the project is built they will plan and carry out a rigorous series of tests to make sure that all systems will continue to function despite the environmental extremes that they will be exposed to. Finally they will prepare the systems on the day of the launch. The ICT team design, build and update our online presence. This includes a dedicated web page (which will feature all of the project news, photos and video), a Facebook page and a Twitter Account. They act as in house reporters; collecting information from the different teams about all the different tasks they are working on. The team also edit our photos and produce our videos. They are responsible for writing custom firmware for our camera so that it will operate autonomously when in flight. They are also responsible for setting up all of the media equipment which will go up with the payload. What is the payload? The box containing the power supply (lithium battery packs), media equipment, the flight computer, tracking devices, environmental sensors and the antenna is called the payload. It must be strong enough to survive buffeting by violent winds, rain, freezing temperatures, vacuum conditions and a bumpy landing. It must float in case it lands in water, it must be waterproof to survive the elements and it should be light enough that it will be unable to cause any damage when it lands. How high will it go and how will it get there? We are hoping to attain a height of between 28 and 30km. From that height we should see the curvature of the Earth ringed by a thin blue band which marks the breathable atmosphere. That’s three times higher than the cruising altitude of passenger planes (~10km). The payload is lifted by a special weather balloon containing helium. As the balloon rises the atmosphere becomes less dense and the pressure on the outside of the balloon drops which means the balloon expands until eventually it bursts. When it is close to bursting the balloon will be roughly spherical in shape with a diameter of approximately 8-9m. Won’t it come plunging back down to Earth and hit something? The balloon is attached to the top of a parachute and the bottom of the parachute is attached to the payload box. The balloon is designed to burst into shreds leaving just a few fragments attached to the top of the parachute. This allows the parachute to open when the atmospheric density is sufficient (under 10km) and it will slow the descent of the payload to about 10mph. The payload will be very light and packed into a structure that will absorb any impact to protect the equipment inside. The balloon will only be launched if the projected landing site is not in a densely populated area or over the sea. How do you know where it’s going to land and how do you find it? Before we launch the balloon we use weather mapping software to simulate its flight. This gives us an estimated landing zone and allows us to decide whether or not to launch it that day. After it has launched its flight computer will transmit GPS data (latitude, longitude and altitude) back to Earth which we will pick up using a radio, decode using a laptop and plot as a flight path on Google Maps. This means anyone can watch the online tracking page to follow the flight as it happens. When the balloon lands the radio signal will be blocked by the surrounding terrain so we will use a second tracking device. The payload will contain a smartphone with a tracking application installed. We can text this phone and it will send us its final position which we can plot on a map. Why can’t you do all the tracking using a smartphone? The mobile phone network is set up to broadcast horizontally not vertically and so coverage does not extend above ~2km. Most GPS chips do not function at altitude; they are designed for location services on the ground or close to it. Is there a chance it will hit a plane? No. We have to request permission to launch from the Civilian Aviation Authority over a month in advance and they will send as a certificate and put a NOTAM (Notice to airmen) into place so that everyone flying in the area can see where our balloon will be. On the day we will contact the local air traffic control before launch to make sure the balloon will not be in the way of anything else in the air. Why are you collecting this data? We collect environmental data for two reasons: 1) It will help us build up a picture of how the conditions in the atmosphere vary with altitude. This will help us plan future flights and adapt our equipment to cope with the extreme conditions it will experience. 2) If anything were to go wrong the data collected may give us a better understanding of why it went wrong.