The Manchester Meteor is a high-altitude balloon and payload, created by myself and Dr Jonathan Chippindall (from primarycomputing.co.uk). The aim of this first launch was to test a low-cost design, using only off-the-shelf components, from which we could obtain HD video of near-space. Our overall budget was just over £300, which included some re-usable items such as a video camera and phone.
Our equipment broadly consisted of a latex high altitude weather balloon, parachute and a payload containing a small camera, smart phone and a chemical hand warmer to keep the electronics working at low operating temperatures. It’s probably as simple as a payload could be – but if everything went to plan then we would be able to achieve some fantastic footage. We’re also sending two Lego astronauts along for the ride:
Planning the Manchester Meteor launch has been a long time in the making – we initially started work on the design in mid-summer, but quickly found out that rules, regulations and weather are the major conditions that determine launch. Although the equipment was all ready for launch within around 12 hours of construction time, obtaining permission to launch and waiting for a patch of weather that took us in the right direction took several months.
The science behind high altitude ballooning is well established and there are already some fantastic resources which explain in detail the steps you would need to go through to complete a similar project. The UK High Altitude society (http://ukhas.org.uk/) is a great place to start, and HABHUB (http://habhub.org/) has a great set of calculation tools which you can use to validate launch calculations.
We had several restrictions placed on us for this project, primarily that the drift direction of the balloon and payload would remain within a certain arc around the launch site (to avoid restricted airspace near Manchester airport). We also had a recording time of around 2h20m on our GoPro camera (tested several times by recording in the freezer at -18C).
Based on this data, we were aiming for a burst height of 30,000 meters, as this would keep the flight time under our maximum recording duration, for only a minimum reduction in maximum altitude. To put it into perspective, this is around 100,000ft and several times higher than an airliner would fly at and the horizon would be 619km away!
As we were aiming for a low-cost launch that was easy to replicate, we solely used phone based GPS tracking. The benefits of this are that the setup/configuration is very easy and a smartphone can cost less than £50, however we are of course relying on the fact that we’ll have a mobile phone signal at the landing zone (at a minimum).
Despite all the preparation work that had gone into the Meteor project, there was still a lot to do on the morning of launch. Chip arrived at our house at 7am and we began checking through our equipment lists and loading up the cars. We tried to think of everything that we might possibly need, but that is easier said than done when you are entering the unknown. Two of the most useful items turned out to be a large tarpaulin to lay everything out on, and gaffa tape… not to mention a very decent supply of biscuits and cakes.
Once the helium canister was secured and everything was loaded into the cars, we started our journey to Mold in North Wales. The time was roughly 7.45am and we wanted to try and avoid as much of the rush hour traffic as we could. It took just under an hour to get to Mold by which point we were feeling very excited! Despite having bright sunshine when we left Manchester the weather was overcast by the time we arrived, but it soon brightened up. The conditions were ideal for launch – great visibility, no rain, and although there was a slight breeze it wasn’t strong enough to cause any problems.
We managed to park within easy walking distance of the launch site (a small field) – which was handy given that the helium canister was heavy! Once the tarpaulin was laid out we unboxed the payload and all other equipment to begin the launch procedure. One of our main points of concern was keeping the balloon intact and on Earth, so we secured it to the helium canister with a safety line before starting to fill it. Gloves were necessary too, since any oil or dirt on the balloon could compromise its integrity. We needed to be sure that the balloon was filled with enough helium – too little and it would rise too high and drift too far, and too much would cause the balloon to pop at a much lower altitude than we wanted. As we didn’t have any equipment to measure the volume of helium put into the balloon, we used a device to measure the lift from the balloon – we found that a luggage weight measurer worked just fine.
Once the balloon was filled to the correct capacity, the next step was sealing it tightly and securing the payload. By this point we were both wishing that we’d paid more attention at Scouts and could remember some good knots… however, after a lot of string, gaffa tape and cable ties, we felt happy that the balloon and payload were secure. All that was left to do was to start the GoPro camera, which we had left until the last possible minute to maximise the footage window. All set; time for launch!
The Manchester Meteor was launched from Mold at 10am, and as we watched it shoot up into the sky the one thing that we were not prepared for was the feeling that kicked in as soon as we let go. If it wasn’t 10am, and we didn’t have a lot more work to do, I think we would have both had a drink to steady our nerves! Once we had packed up all the equipment we immediately checked the tracking data on our phones and were relieved to see it working fine. We decided to hit the road and stop off for a coffee and a snack with our laptops.
Around 30 mins after launch, we lost contact with the balloon as the altitude and lack of phone reception in the peak district meant that the phone could no longer contact a ground station. This was expected, so we just had to wait until the balloon would re-gain contact… a very nervous wait. After just over an hour, we were starting to think that we may not hear back from the payload – so after trying to access the tracking data via SMS and a datalink, we thought we would phone the payload to see what would happen…
Amazingly, the phone rang! It seemed to kick-start the phone into action and suddenly we had location data. Our feelings of despair turned to utter amazement; it was such an exciting feeling to be back in touch with the device that we had watched zoom up into the sky. The payload has almost reached the ground and it was somewhere near Bolsover in South Yorkshire. As the data became clearer, the payload appeared to be very close to a lake… and a sewage-works. Oh dear, this was not looking good. However the fact it was broadcasting data seemed to indicate that it had not been submerged in water (or worse!), and we were just so delighted to have a location than the excitement outweighed the concern. We hit the road.
A relatively smooth landing
We had a sunny drive across the Peak District, and by around 2.30pm we had parked up as close as we could get to the indicated landing spot in the outskirts of Bolsover. With the castle looking down on us from the top of a nearby hill, we began the search. Thankfully the area was popular with dog walkers and there were lots of good paths. We went past the sewage works and could head the roar of the M1 motorway in the distance – we kept our fingers crossed that it wasn’t right in the middle. Then came the moment; we spotted it – smack bang in the middle of a field! It had missed all the nearby obstacles and the payload didn’t have a scratch on it, although the same could not be said for Chip’s lego man who had appeared to have lost his helmet. A minor injury in what was otherwise a perfect day.
We were ecstatic with how well everything had gone. Whilst we were fairly optimistic about the launch, in the back of our minds we had both been expecting difficulties and we hadn’t envisaged that it would go quite so well. The journey back home seemed to take forever.
The footage was better than we could have hoped, it was incredible seeing the launch from the point of view of the payload. Whilst the camera was very secure within the payload housing, the payload itself was very unstable and was spinning through the air a lot of the time. The moments where it slowed were incredible to watch, and we began to see landmarks we recognised such as the Mersey River. After 73 minutes of footage the balloon popped and the payload began its descent. We were thrilled when one of the Lego men had a brief space-walk in front of the camera after having come unstuck from the top of the housing.
Apogee, Burst and a brief Spacewalk!
The balloon and payload travelled around 80 miles as the crow flies, and reached an altitude of approx. 30,000 meters. The basic set-up made for a cheap and easy project, but it also made the payload difficult to track. We were very lucky with the results of our project, but had the course altered only slightly the payload could have landed in an area of poor phone signal and we would have had to rely on the kindness of strangers to return it to us (if it was ever found). For a high value project, then using radio tracking would be preferable.
Overall, the launch was an amazing experience. Space holds such a fascination for most of us but is beyond the reach of all but the luckiest astronauts, so to actually feel like part of us had broken free of Earth in a small way was a fantastic feeling. What we did was relatively cheap and easy to do, and would make a fantastic project for kids and adults alike.
If you would like to read more, then please check out Chip’s articles on the project on his blog: www.primarycomputing.co.uk.
Also, if you have any questions on the launch then please do reply to the comments thread (which you can access by clicking the comment button at the top of each article page). We’ll be adding a larger edited version of the video once we’ve processed all of the data.