Aether - How to...

Post Aether III Update (2016-2017)
I thought it'd be a good idea to mention some changes we made when prepping Aether III. I'll leave the previous info, as you might find some of it useful, but here's the latest set-up info:

- We changed APRS units with Aether III, using a new "Radio Bug" add-on for the Eagle Flight computer to track our capsule in real-time. It did a great job, runs off the flight computer's power supply, and weighs very near nothing.
Eagle Flight Computer -
Radio Bug -

- We utilized a backup, satellite-based tracking system. While APRS running an appropriate chip will allow you to track a payload to six-figure altitudes, they do rely on what is essentially line-of-sight communication to towers. This means your APRS system likely will not work on the ground (unless you are very near a tower).
This SPOT TRACE system is totally satellite-based, and allowed us to track Aether III at low altitudes, see that the capsule had come to rest, and get remarkably exact location data in a remote area.
Service will cost $100 a year... I was annoyed, as they advertise "monthly" service plans. You can buy monthly service for no fewer than 12 months at $10/month, or you can buy a year's service at $100. I'm hoping I can get at least one more mission inside my service window to make me feel better about paying for it. Anyway, when it worked so well, I don't feel I can really complain about it too much.

- We used a GoPro Session for our down-firing video. Looked great, weighs little. After reviewing the video collected, I think I'd opt for an old-school Hero with a battery back-pack, as the Session didn't record the full 2-hour flight.

- We thought it'd be very cool to send up a 360-degree camera, allowing us to look up at the balloon, watch the 'chute work, look down at the planet, look to the right and see our passenger, etc... We used a 4K 360Fly camera. Unfortunately, the video looks like THIS. It was grossly over-exposed throughout the flight and totally useless. Bummer. We'll probably try again on Aether IV.

Original Info - Aether I and Aether II (2013-2015)
A brief survey of sources and suggestions for performing your own near-space project from John Williams

Whoever might be interested,

Here is Yahoo's coverage of the Lego man in space that kinda got me thinking about the project in the first place (several years back).The story was near-viral.

This is a link to Google's hibal project. I found it really helpful. Good info, decent pics and video. I ended up following this example the closest.

FAA's FAR101 (regulations regarding balloons) The FAA's site is easy enough to find as well. It can hook you up with your local people to call for a NOTAM or any special instruction.

Here is the GPS/Radio setup I used. (It is the closest I could find to the one Google used, as it is now discontinued. The newer version is more complete and ready-to-go, but the casing and all is heavier. For Aether I, our friends at Power Technology helped us out by shortening the excess cable and connector between the radio and the GPS4 chip. This saved us a good deal of weight. You will want the high altitude package with the GPS4 chip (to operate above 60,000'). You can easily chop off the 12V cigarette lighter plug and replace it with a 8 AA holder, or as we did with ours, two holders with 4 AAs. The Duracell UltraLithiums are much lighter than standard AAs, longer lasting and can handle the cold. You'll need a callsign in order to purchase the unit. It will arrive preconfigured and ready to plug-and-track, pinging every 2min. It can be reconfigured with the proper adapters and software downloaded from byonics.

If you do opt for APRS tracking (I certainly recommend it), you'll need an amateur license or the callsign of a willing friend with a license. You'll be able to track the package using this site. This is probably the quickest way to check for digipeaters in your area too.

Here is a link to MIT's $150 balloon project. (Due to lack of cell signal reliability in our flight/landing region, I didn't think it would work for us; but I found it a helpful source of ideas.)

This is a VERY useful link. It will take you to Cambridge University's balloon flight prediction software. Input your launch time, location, etc... and it was very accurate when compared to our actual flight data. U Colorado has one as well, I think. I found this one much easier to look at and use.

The whole site is pretty excellent, including burst calculators, tracking software, and other info. Beware of the calculator used to calculate volume of Helium needed... We tried using it and had a muuuuuch slower ascent than anticipated. Not good. We might have screwed something up, but double check yourself.

Here's a great place to order larger specialty balloons. If you have questions about what you should expect from your setup and their balloons, their guys are very knowledgeable, experienced and helpful.

This link is where you'll find Canon hacking protocols.This will allow you to do all sorts of crazy stuff with a canon point and shoot (particularly - shoot in intervals, full manual mode, and RAW format shooting). It's really the way to get your stills. These little Canon point-and-shoots are dirt cheap (or it might be just as easy to find one you can have or borrow). They have taken respectable photos for me.

I've read that Al foil can be used as a radar reflector. We didn't try it, though our foil insulation likely served the purpose. I did consider using Al foil to cover fins, acting as a radar reflector and perhaps trying to counteract the natural spin of the balloon/capsule. (I played with swivels as well, but had no test experience with that. I will be testing that before next time.) Do not enclose your GPS chips or radio antennas in foil to avoid any Faraday cage effects.

The first tips that come to mind:
- Mount your GPS chip. If it flips or turns over (say, during the freefall after the balloon bursts), it will send crazy info to the encoder and the radio will not send the invalid packets. It was a pretty rough ride.
- Test your APRS (or other tracking equipment) by driving around with the capsule in flight-ready condition before the launch date.
- I used an althetic parachute instead of a model rocket chute because - 1. dirt cheap on amazon 2. mesh, rather than lines, doesn't get tangled
- I have used a Kodak Playsport ZX5 for video (aiming down) in the past. You can find this model for $50-80 on ebay and it is good for ~2.5 hrs of footage while being 1080P, shockproof, waterproof, etc... On Aether I, we used a GoPro Hero 3 White.
- Hot Hands can help keep your equipment and batteries warm. As the package reaches higher altitudes, the amount of oxygen in the environment will drop and the Hot Hands will put off less and less heat. They'll wake back up on the way down.

Another link I've recently found to be useful -

This list is not, by any means, all-inclusive. Feel free to contact me with questions or suggestions and I'll do my best to update the info here, making this page a more useful resource.