High Altitude Weather Balloon Launch and Preparation Checklist

High Altitude Weather Balloon Launch and Preparation Checklist

The key to any successful HAB launch? Successful planning! Because of the huge number of variables in any given launch, many amateur (and veteran) launches do not go perfectly according to plan. However, with the proper planning, you can reduce the uncertainty and increase the probability of a successful launch.

Our preparation and launch checklists are free to download.

US Drone Registration and High Altitude Balloons

US Drone Registration and High Altitude Balloons

Make sure you are compliant with all FAA regulations prior to your next launch. In this blog post, we cover all the laws and regulations that apply to Near-Space Balloons to make sure you are prepared and compliant.

EFT-4: Oh, Shenandoah! High Altitude Balloon Launch #4

Date: 11 October 2015DSC_1690Equipment:  DS Rev 4 Launch: Fishers Hill, VA Landing: Luray, VA Time of Flight: 93 minutes Distance Travelled: 26 miles Burst Altitude: (~65,000 ft)

After the successful launch and recovery of our EFT-3 HAB, we were incredibly eager to put another Dogeship-class weather balloon back into the skies and capture some more stunning photos (and hopefully video) of the Earth. There is something truly awe-inspiring about sending a spacecraft high enough that only a tiny fraction of a percent of ALL of humanity that has ever existed has been able to accomplish a similar feat. We live in a wonderful time of endless technological possibilities and knowledge sharing that makes all of this possible.

One of our goals from the start has been to make this invigorating experience of capturing near-space photos of Earth’s curvature more accessible to those that may not think that it would be even possible: photographers, younger students, and those that have knowledge of perhaps some sub-system of the weather balloon craft but don’t have the skills or confidence that they would be able to pull off all the components that go into a HAB launch.


Enter: EFT-4. Because of all the lessons that we learned throughout the first three launches, we have been assembling a step-by-step user guide that will walk through each of the critical aspects of a HAB Near-Space Weather Balloon launch, and hopefully lead to successful photos and recovery. EFT-4 was our first time letting two complete strangers that have never launched a weather balloon before to try out our user guide, our inflation system, and essentially launch a balloon with minimal guidance from us.


We hope to share our knowledge and help anyone launch a weather balloon, and this user guide is now available for FREE download after signing up for our mailing list here.


As mentioned in the previous brief overview post of EFT-4, the plan was to flight-test our planned configuration that we had written the user guide around. The only additional component that we included on this flight for data-gathering purposes was our trusty Canon SD 780IS running the CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit) software to take video on ascent while looking straight up at the balloon.

The details of the flight configuration for predictions of EFT-4 were:

DSC_1006Payload Weight = 1.79lbs Nozzle Lift = 6.00 lbs (see an explanation of Nozzle Lift here) Parachute = 30” Cameras: 1 RioRand RS4000 (1080p video), 1 Canon SD780IS (720p video) Parachute to Balloon Length = 60” (one string) Parachute to Payload Attach = 40’ (one 40lb test string, attached to payload through two zipties)

Interestingly enough, the predicted winds on the launch date and time in the Shenandoah valley were southerly, and only expected to carry the balloon roughly 20-30 miles. If we planned it right, we may be able to catch a glimpse of our EFT-4 HAB on descent!

Launch Day

DSC_0966Our guinea pig for the day was Shahin. Although Shahin has an Aerospace background, the entire process of launching a weather balloon was entirely foreign to him. After running our last-minute pre-flight checks and selecting what seemed to be an appropriate launch site (an old Civil War Battlefield), we set out for our destination and prepared to launch.

DSC_1163Although some questions arose during the process, which was our main intent of having someone unfamiliar run through the steps for launching the HAB, overall the pre-flight preparations ran smoothly. Another friend that had not taken part in a balloon launch before, Billy, had graciously offered to be the paparazzi for the day and captured photos during the entire process.


With the payload prepped, balloon inflated, and all pre-flight checks indicating a GO, Shahin gave the customary launch speech, and away EFT-4 went!


Launch Log

Time of Launch: 12:26PM EST Launch Coordinates: 38.9896069,-78.4169555 (601 Battlefield Rd, Fishers Hill, VA 22645)

Time of Recovery (in-hand): ~2:30PM EST Landing Coordinates:38.6178,-78.5064 (3348 Mill Creek Rd Luray, VA 22835)


0 minutes: Godspeed, Dogeship-4!

2 minutes: Initial SMS messages indicate a nominal ascent rate, in lines with our pre-flight predictions. SMS messages cease (as programmed) once the launch-detect algorithm detects the launch and puts the phone into Airplane mode. We’ll see you on the other side, Dogeship. 

5 minutes: Although we’re not receiving communications because of the phone being in Airplane mode, we can still see her! Looking out the moonroof, she is climbing strong (and also rotating pretty violently….).

10 minutes: Based on initial climb and pre-flight predictions, we anticipate possibly being able to drive underneath the point of burst. Although we don’t expect to see her, we figure we will drive to that point along the Shenandoah valley ridge and give it our best shot. Meanwhile, up at 13,000 ft. altitude...

DSC_198025 minutes: We arrive at the intersection underneath the expected point of burst, and pull over in a Church parking lot. Again, not expecting to see anything (but still desperately hoping so), we hang out here for roughly 10 minutes. Updated in-flight predictions show that she may actually be going a little more north (towards the left of the Church in the picture), and unfortunately not traveling as far as we originally predicted. We decide to drive slightly north to see if we can scope out the area.

It's around this point in time when both the Riorand Camera and the Canon camera videos stopped. The Riorand froze most likely due to overheating (still powered up upon recovery), while the Canon camera likely froze due to the cold. Here is the entire ~24 minutes of flight looking up from the payload at the balloon. It's a violent flight, so hang on!

40 minutes: Landing zone assessment: not optimal at all. Trees everywhere! And worst of all, absolutely no cell phone service. If the updated pre-flight predictions are correct and she ends up landing short along the ridge, it is starting to appear that our chances of recovery (and of even hearing back) are pretty slim.

50 minutes: Because we have no cell service, we decide to drive to the top of the ridge. What a view! The beautiful fall foliage overlooking the valley almost makes us forget about how grim our prospects are starting to look for a successful Dogeship-4 recovery (almost).   

60 minutes: With a few bars of service on the top of the ridge, we still haven’t heard anything from our Dogeship. Expecting to have heard back for nearly 10 minutes but not receiving a single text and fearing the worst, we decide to take a hike up the trail on the ridge.


80 minutes: Long past when we expected to receive an SMS and hanging on to what little thread of hope remained for a recovery, we finally get a GPS coordinate message! She just cleared the landing altitude detection threshold...she’ll be on the ground in only a few minutes, and is only a 20 minute drive from us (within 2 miles of where we originally anticipated the landing). Quickly abandoning our hike, we run back to the cars and get underway.

93 minutes: En route to the landing site, EFT-4 touches down. The location is in Luray, VA on a farm, smack in the middle of a field. With enough distance to the nearest tree line, we’re sure we’ll be able to pick her up, so long as someone is around that allows us on to their property.

120 minutes: After approaching the owners of the farm, we walk out to the field, and pick up Dogeship-4. The Canon camera still has the lens out but is obviously frozen in that position and no longer taking pictures, while the RioRand camera appears a bit foggy, but still in-tact. SUCCESS!

After a quick thank-you with the farm owners, we embark back to a surrounding town for some celebration BBQ.DSC_2052


Overall, EFT-4 was a complete success. The balloon ended up landing within 2 miles of the predicted landing zone, we recovered the payload in just over 2 hours after launch, and we got some useful video on ascent. Thank you to Shaheen and Billy for their help on this successful EFT-4 launch!


As with each of our launches thus far, we had a lot of learning and takeaways from this launch. Although we obtained video during ascent, both cameras failed roughly 20 minutes into flight (one overheated, one froze).

Flight Hardware Lessons Learned:

  • Camera condensation started on the ground before launch and during climb on the inside of plastic camera case. We suspect that the temperature inside the case rises before launch, causing an increased dewpoint, resulting in condensation on the inside (small hole also drilled on side for charging port)
    • Potential Mitigation: On future launches, using a small dessicant pack inside the camera case and better thermal control to prevent over-heating (or not using a case altogether)
  • Thermal Control - 2 Hot Hands handwarmers were used. It resulted in the payload becoming very hot (likely the cause of GoPro shut-down). Sitting on the ground 30-40 minutes in the sealed Styrofoam cooler before launch contributed to the over-heating issue.
    • Potential Mitigation: Active thermal system controlled by the phone; better control over the amount of time handwarmers are in the sealed payload.
  • Rotation: watching the live videos for the first time (we have only received still images in the past), we notice a high frequency rotation  and lower frequency but violent nutation (coning) on ascent.
    • Potential Mitigation: Likely caused by a combination of factors, including fast climb velocity (over-filled balloon to burst earlier than typical), single-point string attachment to the payload. We plan to analyze these causes in more detail and can experiment with the variables on future flight to determine root cause and get a more stable platform.

Other Lessons Learned:

  • Our previous EFT-3 launch seems an outlier for burst altitude. EFT-4 burst altitude was above 60kft and seems in line with expectations before EFT-3.
  • Our devices didn’t have service/data and so we were not able to verify that SMS was enabled and working prior to launch. We plan to add audible beeping in case service goes out before launch (after payload is sealed).

Doubling Down on Doge - Engineering Flight Test (EFT) 4


Our fourth Dogeship launch went up over Virginia this past weekend, racking up a second successful flight!  The Doge appears to have attained an altitude of roughly 65,000 feet with a flight time of one and a half hours.  The winds were light on launch day, so the total distance traveled was roughly 26 miles through the Shenandoah Valley.  A more thorough post of the flight will come in the next few weeks after we've gotten a chance to analyze the data. EFT4_KML

For this launch we attempted to fly two video cameras - one knockoff Go-Pro which was cheap enough to be considered expendable, and our trusty Canon digital camera which was space qualified on EFT3.  Unfortunately the videos all terminated after around 25 minutes of flight.  The Canon, mounted on the outside appears to have frozen.  The Faux-Pro was inside the Doge and overheated due to the heat of the hand warmers.  One major observation was the recurrence of a high frequency rolling motion of the payload combined with a downright violent spinning of the entire system during the climb.  Once we post the video this will become immediately apparent - it'll make you sick!


Many more lessons learned on this flight, but the big success was the second flight of the telemetry tracker, and the first flight with our enhanced mission code, which is just begging for a future blog post.  This system is smart enough to detect launch and land, and has a number of fault codes that trigger various actions to attempt to provide locations in the event of an in-flight emergency.  More on this one to come soon.


The Doge has Landed! - Engineering Flight Test (EFT) 3


IMG_4030Date: 14 March 2015Equipment:  DS Rev 3 (aka Dogeship-3) Launch: Greensboro, NC Landing: Warrenton, NC Time of Flight: 89 Minutes Distance Travelled: 91 miles Burst Altitude: TBD (~61,000 ft)

After our first successful balloon launch with EFT-2 (still to be recovered), plans for EFT-3 were immediately underway with great enthusiasm and vigor. The biggest planned improvement (aside from launching in a warmer location) to the hardware arsenal for EFT-3 would aim to prevent the payload from getting stuck in the tree, by means of a “cut-down” circuit.


The thought of the cut-down circuit would be to attach the payload to the parachute via a single string, and activate a mechanism which would sever that attachment and allow the payload to fall from the tree while the parachute remains suspended in any branches. The original concept would use the phone as the activation mechanism. By playing an audio signal (none other than the Star Spangled Banner for us) from the phone, it would trigger a signal in a circuit and trigger a relay to dump current from a small battery through a piece of Nichrome wire. The hot Nichrome wire would melt the attachment to the parachute, and voila! The payload would fall from the tree. Unfortunately, the cut-down circuit was abandoned last-minute due to insufficient time for prototyping and getting the circuit ready. However, there are plans to use the cut-down circuit as a means for delaying the deployment of the parachute on descent in the future to further reduce mission distance.


In addition to the cut-down prototype, we were ready to try for a higher altitude in order to capture more spectacular pictures. The Kaymont 600 balloon has a published burst altitude of 75,000-90,000 feet. The plan was to fill it with an entire 125 cu ft. tank again, which is an overfill condition and would result in a pre-mature burst altitude somewhere below the published burst altitude, but would allow us a shorter driving distance for recovery.

The last major detail was planning the location. Priority 1: it should be warmer than the first two launches. Priority 2: again, let's do a warm launch! The team decided to take a flight to Durham, NC to visit a family member currently attending Duke University there and launch in North Carolina (warm!).


The launch date was selected for the March 13 weekend and plane tickets were booked. A Test Readiness Review (TRR) meeting was held again 1 week prior to ensure that nothing was overlooked and that the pre-flights were completed and go/no-go launch criteria established.


Mission Objectives

Primary Objectives (Mission Critical):

  1. Verify Telemetry (TM) system utility, including collection of lost frames
  2. Verify Payload Cutdown System
  3. Verify validity and assumptions of flight simulation using TM and Flight Data Recorder (FDR) data
  4. Finalize TRR, Preflight, and Launch Procedures
  5. Optional Objective: Record photos during ascent and descent

EFT-2 Flight Hardware

The hardware configuration for EFT-3 was exactly the same as with EFT-2, with the exception of using a smaller parachute for a faster descent, and a Kaymont 600 balloon instead of a 350 for additional altitude before burst. The cell phone was a different model, but served an identical purpose by running the latest TM software for EFT-3.


In addition to much more rigorous flight planning, the highest risks for EFT-2 were determined as outlined in the chart below. The cut-down device had been originally planned to retire the "tree landing" risk, but had to be abandoned last minute due to lack of testing.EFT-3_Risks


The Telemetry (TM) software was updated for EFT-3 to allow for a few improvements and to test some theories for future flights.

Mainly, the TM software was updated to be able to receive commands once back on the ground, to allow for changes in the message length, the frequency of which messages are sent, and a few other parameters. The software also accepts the “sever” command for the cut-down mechanism, which may prove to have use in future flights as a cut-down or parachute delay mechanism.

Launch Day

Parameter Imperial S.I.
Final Payload Weight  1.8 lbs. 0.8 kg
Measured Nozzle Lift  6.2 lbs. 2.8 kg
Free lift (Nozzle lift – payload weight)  4.5 lbs. 2.0 kg
Estimated Burst Altitude 79,000 ft. 24,000 m


Launch Log:

0 minutes – with a small speech and the dual-salute, EFT-3 is sent off. She disappears into light mist falling from the thick clouds. We flew down to NC for this; we weren't about to scrap our launch just because of a little rain!

1 minutes – Communications have already ceased. Although not unexpected this flight, we had hoped to maintain communications a little longer before losing contact. A plot of temp vs. time shows that the temperature is much more reasonable with 2 hand-warmers. And now we wait.

IMG_419075 minutes – modeled landing time. Still no messages have been received.

90 minutes – CONTACT. EFT-3 is on the ground in the middle of no-where. She appears to be right on the fringe of what appears to be a grove where very tall trees meet some very short bushes.  We route towards the landing zone and wishfully hope that it is in the small bushes…

100 minutes – our team parks at a Methodist Church just outside the tree farm. After 20150314_162628reading the posted signs that just forbid firearms and hunting on the land without a permit, we proceed to walk the mile or so towards EFT-3. SMS messages are still coming in loud and clear.

As we proceed along the banks of a small stream, we near the location where the EFT-3 TM beacon has been emitting from. Tall trees on our right, but small trees to our left….still praying that EFT-3 landed a little to the left.

120 minutes – we see her, and she’s on the ground! After de-tangling the lines from thorn bushes, we start the trek back out.



EFT-3 marks the first successful recovery of a launch, including access to both the FDR data and camera pictures. Although it appears that the balloon may have burst earlier than anticipated (even for the overfill condition), the descent ended up going much longer than expected, so we lucked out in not having it go as high as it could have.


The pictures up at the high altitudes indicated that the payload was experiencing severe sway, potentially flipping end over end at times. It is also worth noting that IMG_4331the balloon to parachute attachment line had wound itself around the parachute suspension lines about half way up, which effectively reduces the line length and hence reduces the drag coefficient of the parachute. For future launches, a longer balloon to parachute attachment line should help increase stability, and hence make it more stable on ascent. Furthermore, a parachute deployment mechanism (potentially utilizing the cut-down device hardware) that waits until a prescribed altitude before deploying the parachute would decrease the changes of any lines tangling and reduces the distance and time that would be required for recovery.


Comparison of the actual GPS (red) with pre-flight predictions (yellow) show good correlation with winds, taking into account earlier than expected burst of actual system.

For those interested, the plot of temperature vs. altitude shows that our hand-warmers and cooler insulation design maintained the cell phone temperature within a desirable range for the duration of the flight.