Balloon Launches Take Amateur Radio Fans to New Heights

With the sports world slowly creeping out of lockdown mode, Hams continue to find their own ways to compete through on-air contests and, most recently, an up-in-the-air cross-continent balloon race. ESPN-ready? Maybe not, but it sure beats watching some guys play corn hole on Channel 32. And there was plenty of science and learning involved as well.

Joanne Michael, KM6BWB, a science educator in Los Angeles and veteran of several balloon launches with her students, initiated the event by challenging Ted Tagami, KK6UUQ, from, a partner of Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS). Two other competitors joined and on June 1, four helium-filled balloons were launched from the West Coast. The goal was to see which one would reach the Eastern Time Zone first and, in the process, encourage students to track the mylar airships on their journey.

The winner of the race was Liam Kennedy, KN6EQU, inventor of ISS Above, another ARISS partner. The real winners, though, were students who monitored the balloons’ locations, altitudes, and temperatures using the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS). Here’s a great resource from ARISS on how to track a Pico balloon.

APRS Transceiver Payload from WiMo

For educators and clubs looking to launch their own balloons, DX Engineering carries WiMo’s PicoAPRS-Lite APRS Transceiver Module. Weighing only 7.2 grams (without antenna jack, case or power source), it’s built for reliably tracking balloon flights with APRS payload (Pico balloons and stratosphere balloons) as well as for many other APRS purposes. Special functions of the PicoAPRS-Lite include automatic or manual frequency tuning on request (e.g., automatic for worldwide balloon flights); temperature and air pressure sensor; the ability to be powered by a small solar cell with buffer capacitor, or single-use or rechargeable batteries; 3.2-5 voltage range; and integrated GPS module with balloon mode up to 80km height—perfect for stratosphere balloons. The tracker measures a stealthy 27.8 x 66.9 x 6.3mm (about 1 x 3 inches).

Not Your Average Party Balloon

Members of the Quarter Century Wireless Association, Chapter 21, Canton, Ohio, launched a hydrogen-powered, high-altitude Scientific Balloon Solutions model SBS-13 balloon on August 24, 2019. Jim Grover, N8PZL, and Mel Vye, W8MV, sent the craft skyward from Portage Lakes in Summit County, Ohio. The balloon (call sign W8MV-11) quickly ascended to 44,000 feet and began its eastward journey. By November 4, the craft had circumnavigated the globe four times.

“Three months passed with no report, then in February 2020 we began receiving reports again. We assumed that near the winter solstice, there was not enough sunlight to power the electronics,” Vye explained.

On May 15, 264 days into its flight, the balloon was reported cruising over Russia between Ukraine and Kazakhstan heading almost due east at an altitude of 41,816 feet with a ground speed of 58 MPH. The balloon, last reported on June 2, is equipped with a tracker transmitting APRS at 1W every minute. It’s powered by a single solar panel with energy stored in a 3.3F Ultracap. Software in the tracker adjusts the APRS frequency to be compatible with the location reported by the GPS receiver.

Data has revealed that it takes an average of 17 days for the balloon to circumnavigate the Earth. Visit here and search on W8MV-11 to track the balloon

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