SA hackers aim for stars in Global Space Balloon Challenge

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You might not have heard about the Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC) happening this weekend, but if you’ve ever wondered what happens to a helium balloon once a child has let go of it in the car park, you might just want to check it out. It’s an international effort to float as many balloons as high as possible and feedback video to Earth, and you can follow it all online.

Sixty teams from 18 countries on six continents have been working really hard the last couple of months, and tomorrow will see them all launch their creations into the sky. And guess what? We have five South African teams taking part.

“The Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC) is the coming together of people around the world to simultaneously fly high altitude balloons from every corner of the globe, celebrating an age where anyone can reach the edge of space for a few hundred dollars and a few weekends of work,” the GSCB wrote in a post.

The BinarySpace team, based in Vanderbijlpark and lead by Tom Van den Bon, is one such and will be launching their helium-filled balloon from the Blesbokfontein Airport in Mpumalanga sometime tomorrow morning.

The balloon, which is expected to reach an altitude of around 30km, can be tracked by enthusiasts, as the group fitted it with an APRS tracker. But reaching the outer parts of our atmosphere does present some unique challenges, like the quick drop in temperature.

BinarySpace’s high altitude balloon is filled with helium and is designed to burst once it reaches the peak of its two hour flight to the edges of space. Van den Bon says he’s hoping most of the payload – a styrofoam box filled with a GoPro camera and an Arduino-powered radio and location system – will be recoverable after it hits the Earth again, so they can have another go next year.

BinarySpace asked the good folks at House4Hack to test the system by using dry ice and Isopropyl Alcohol to bring it to below zero Celsius. Chemical handwarmers will be used to keep the electronics snug as temperatures will drop to around 50 degrees below during the flight.

But an operation like this doesn’t come cheap. To fill the 600g balloon, which is 20 feet in diameter, with helium cost around R1 500, and the balloon itself is R1 400. The cost of the entire project turned out to hover around the R7 000 mark.

With such sensitive equipment and a fragile balloon, Van den Bon says his real concern for the team is that the balloon might rip before it even gets in the sky.

If you want to keep track of all the balloon, head on over to the High Altitude Ballooning blog, or visit the challenges official website. Check back here again next week when we’ll hopefully have videos from the BinarySpace team’s camera.

The header image, courtesy of GSBC, won the prize for the best photograph last year and was photographed by John Flaig’s creation. Each of his two balloon featured four different cameras, including in total a GoPro Hero 3+ Black, Olympus PEN E-PL5, Pentax K-01, Pentax Q7, Canon PowerShot G12, and Canon PowerShot SX260.

Charlie Fripp

Charlie Fripp

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.