Balloon Watch Extravaganza of Science

Hello Spacefans!

You are in the right place. This is where you can follow along live on launch day. The FAST team is gearing up for many  more launches this season. Our next official launch is scheduled for January 5th at around 4:00PM Pacific Time from the Las Vegas area. We plan to launch two or three “floaters” (long distance balloons). NOAA HYSPLIT data shows that high altitude winds are favorable for a long distance run across the US. If we get super lucky the trip would continue across Canada, the tip of Greenland, then across Iceland and northern Europe. Of course the farthest we have ever gone is about 900 miles in 18 hours so don’t get your hopes up too high…

Don’t miss any of the action–follow us on Twitter @FlyAppleSpace
And help us get to 100 likes on our Facebook page!


Tune into the livestream below. Because we have the freebie, you’ll have to wait or watch a commercial before the video starts. If we are not yet live, the player will default to showing you our last video but will stop and ask you to view another commercial (or wait again) as the livestream starts. Livestreaming usually starts 1 hour before launch.

Video streaming by Ustream

Share Button

Whale Tour Weep Not, the Cat Came Back

Something strange happened to me this morning. I got a call from a whale watching tour. They didn’t spot any whales, but Captain Bill DeLuna did swing out stop near another floating object. Whale tourists, weep not! It was Flying Apple Space Technologies FAST-24 payload.

It was not the first time this particular payload went up in the air and made an interesting landing. The first time we tried to get rid of this cat was on FAST-21. That balloon floated through the night and came down near Albuquerque and was rescued by Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and the New Mexico Space Studies crew. It was amazing, it was epic, it was edge-of-your-seat action for near space balloon watchers. I didn’t think it could get any better.

It just might have. But first it got worse. After NMSS returned the payload to us, we made some modifications to the tiny foam box and put it up again on FAST-23. Riding the edge, we put just 70 grams of free lift into that balloon. With surface winds at a brisk 4 mph (not a typo, just sarcasm), the random up and down motion of the winds became important. I sprinted after the balloon and watched it rise slowly, then be blown back down slightly. It almost cleared the tree.  But as the old saying goes, “almost” doesn’t get you a cigar, it gets your equipment firmly stuck in a tree.

The tennis ball and fishing rod of science.

The tennis ball and fishing rod of science.

We tried for about an hour before the sun set to rescue the cat from the tree, using string and a roll of duct tape. No luck. The next day, we went back armed with a fishing rod, a tennis ball, string and a giant roll of duct tape. To make a long story short, @Edward cast the tennis ball right over the top of the tree and we used the fishing line as a guide line to feed a thick string over the top of the payload. We then tied on an enormous roll of duct tape and guided that along the string until it was just above the payload. We got that bad boy swinging and were able to break the foam box free from the flight string. It was yet another great use of of a roll of duct tape.

The cat was back in my arms.

So we tied it up like a Christmas package with pink tape and pink string and sent it up again on FAST-24. It was the first APRS flight of the new year.

FAST24 first balloon

On this flight, we were attempting a high altitude record, so we put significantly more lift in the balloon. It leap into the air like a scared cat. That solved the tree problem, but I think it may have created another problem. With so much lift compared to the payload weight (200 grams compared to 1.3 kilograms), the balloon snapped like a giant spherical rubber band when we let it go. It oscillated and undulated for as far as I could resolve it with my eye. The tiny payload pulling down didn’t seem to be enough to dampen the motion or orient the balloon properly. I don’t know what caused the balloon to fail, but it could have been this snapping motion that weakened the latex or the payload making contact with the balloon and puncturing it as the balloon rolled about. The balloon went up to just 80,000 feet before bursting and making a splash landing in the ocean.

We thought for sure she was a goner this time.

FAST24 I hate the ocean

I hate the ocean.

But the cat came back, the very next day. To my great surprise, I received a call from Mary, a member of the whale watching tour the next morning who arranged to meet the FAST team and return the payload to us. The sea-soaking has seemed to kill the cat, even if it did make its way back home–it’s urgent soul is still out at sea. I’ve got people working on calculating the odds.

Dead Cat.

Dead Cat.

Share Button

FAST-22 “Lab” Lesson with LINUX Astronomy

DeBrief fast 22

We started the day off early having awakened at 4:30AM for a 5:30AM trip from Irvine to the designated launch spot near Palm Springs, CA. The day started off uneventfully; having been well prepared we took care of a few last minute items and headed out in our chase vehicle (4Runner) with our trailer in tow. We drove in the early morning stopping only at a Starbucks for a breakfast sandwich and a large coffee (or in Amanda’s case a large Chai Tea Latte). We found the launch site in a remote part of the desert Near Thousand Palms, CA that Eugene (more on Eugene later) suggested easily.

The surface winds looked good, this was a bit of a relief because a storm system had been in the area for the past few days and we were lucky to have a break in the winds. Eugene arrived a short while later and we went to the business of getting ready for a launch. We met Eugene through the internet , he had been following our launches on  Eugene is a member of a LINUX astronomy club and he contacted us because he wanted to know if we could help him out on a launch. He introduced us to David, also a member of the LINIX Astronomy club, and we did our first launch, FAST –19 with them in October 2013. Since this is our second launch with the LINXUX club, we dub this flight LINIX Astronomy Balloon 102 (LAB 102). OK, on to the good stuff.

Here is what we flew:


  • SPOT Tracker – Panda 292g
  • SPOT Tracker – UnPanda 292g
  • LINIX A – Radio Shield 816g
  • LINIX A – Sensor Box 951g
  • LINIX A – Camera 644g

Additional equipment :

  • Parachute 160g
  • Fill Tube 327g
  • String 50g
  • A 1600g balloon (but we did not weigh it)

In total we had 3.532 kg in payloads and ~1.600 kg balloon.

We filled the balloon with 196.11 SCF Hydrogen gas, striving for a target burst altitude of 111,000 feet.  The data from the LAB tracker is a bit uncertain, but it may have gone as high as 117,000 feet.

One of the photos captured by the LAB camera payload.

One of the photos captured by the LAB camera payload.

We launched a bit later than we planned but everything went very smoothly. Eugene and David got their payloads ready. This time Eugene was careful NOT to tape over the camera lens. As each payload was readied we weighed them an attached them to the flight string. Our setup was easy and we had at least one stroke of good fortune. The estimated required volume of Hydrogen was 195.03 SCF, we had a 196 SCF tank. As it turned out the tank really did have that much gas and it worked out perfect. We had not been overly excited about switching the tanks in the middle of a fill. Note to self: We may want to consider some type of two tank filling setup, hmmm a manifold? Two quick disconnects?

Anyway, back to the story.

There were some target shooters in the area and I am pretty sure they must have been quite surprised to see the balloon rising. The balloon followed the predicted path pretty closely and while it flew Eugene took David, Amanda and I out to a really great Mediterranean restaurant. Thanks Eugene!!!

After lunch we headed out to retrieve the balloon. It had landed not too far off a sandy road, perhaps 1 km or less. On finding the balloon, after a short hike, we celebrated briefly, photographed the site, picked up the payloads and headed back to the car just as the sun was setting. Back at the car we checked to see if the APRS beacon was still going (we hadn’t heard it when we pulled up in the car 0.6 miles away). It was! Nicely done, men!

By this time it was getting dark so we headed home. We had dropped off our trailer at Eugene’s house before lunch so we could go retrieve the balloon, so we went back to Eugene’s to pick up the trailer first. This time we got the grand tour. Eugene and David have too many cool projects to describe, from a UFO balloon payload complete with awesome flashing strobe lights to a 3-axis camera platform controlled by an Arduino brain. We hooked up the trailer, gave David a ride home and headed back to Irvine.

Exhausted, having had a great day with new friends we fell to sleep with sugar plum balloons dancing in our heads.

Share Button

Breaking HAB

Flying Apple Space Technologies (FAST) launched our 21st mission last Friday. It turned into quite the party. And like any epic ruckus celebrating your 21st, this one was an all-nighter, where we passed out in one state and woke up in another. And…there were…um…photos.

But I’ll get to all that.

First, the mission details: On Friday, December 13th, two members of the FAST team filled a 1600 gram latex weather balloon with just enough hydrogen to get our 250 gram payload off the ground, but not much more. It rose out of Irvine and went west, out across the Pacific halfway to Catalina Island before turning east. It made land at the tip of Point Loma.


Land, ho!

From there it dipped into Mexico for a midnight cerveza. A Mexican tourism group favorited a tweet about the balloon border crossing.

retweeted by Mexico

The balloon then continued East over Mexico and simultaneously reached neutral buoyancy and approached the Arizona border as I passed out on the couch.  When I woke up, it was in another state.  FAST-21 floated at 83,000 feet for about four hours across the great state of Arizona (and an estimated bazillion retirement communities). It even passed near Alicat’s headquarters in Tucson.

Alicat waves hello

Of course they were.

When the sun peeked its rosy cheeks over the rim of the world, the equilibrium set up during the night was disturbed. The gas within the balloon began to get warm as the sun did it’s work,  and the latex sphere began to rise.

FAST21 full on graph day night

Altitude versus time for FAST-21.

After hours of heating, the balloon finally once again plateaued–this time around 114,000 feet. After floating for 17 hours, the balloon burst and the payload dropped from the sky (yes, literally). While FAST-21 was coming to a crashing halt,  another flight,  NMSS-2,  was just taking off.

FAST21 dueling balloons

Dueling Balloons (let the banjos play in your head).

It was the second flight of the New Mexico Space Studies (NMSS) team, located in Albuquerque. It was launching just a few miles from FAST-21′s landing zone. A New Mexico HAM that regularly watches for high altitude balloons had his eye on our flight and informed the team launching NMSS-2 that it was in the area. When it fell to the Earth, NMSS were able to reach me through the miracle of the world wide web. The web brings together robot hat knitters and synchronized spoon throwers. Bringing together high altitude balloon launchers was probably one of its easier jobs.

There were radios, laptops and a girl in her pajamas. It’s all a bit complex. This Communication Schematic of Science should clear it up:

The Communication Schematic of Science

The Communication Schematic of Science

To sum it up, Zig, Mike, Larry and Bryan from the NMSS team (coordinating with Bill and Jay) went out into the Albuquerque desert (weaving a path between the meth trailers) and found our little silver box! Yipee!

Zig with the payload.

Zig from NMSS with the payload.

Mike and Larry from NMSS just after finding the payload.

Mike and Larry from NMSS just after finding the payload.

Zig, Bryan and Mike at the landing zone.

Zig, Bryan and Mike at the landing zone.

After finding it, but before sending it back to FAST headquarters, Mike and the guys from the NMSS team took the payload box on an Amélie-and-the-gnome photo adventure through Albuquerque. First stop, Rudy’s BBQ.

Rudy's BBQ. They don't skimp on the flavor.

Rudy’s BBQ. They don’t skimp on the flavor.

Then on to filming locations for Breaking Bad, yo.

Mike with FAST-21 in front of the Octopus Car Wash, yo.

Mike with the FAST-21 payload in front of the Octopus Car Wash, yo.

Tacos Sal, yo.

Taco Sal, yo.

Mike and the payload in front of Taco Sal, yo.

From there the festive silver box made an appearance at the Albuquerque Amateur Radio Club Christmas party.

Hamming it up. Sorry, but that pun just worked here.

Hamming it up. Sorry, but that pun just worked here.

The payload completed it’s journey today when it arrived by mail back at my doorstep. The recovered beacon will fly another day–it’s now a seasoned traveler. Thank you New Mexico Space Studies and keep looking up, spacefans.

Share Button

FAST Videos: Retrieving FAST-7

This video, taken by fellow FAST member and Project: Space!! student Scarlett Lueck, shows the trek to the landing site of FAST-7. The video is a bit shaky, so video stabilization was used to smooth it out. The terrain was rough; there were mazes of knee-high brush and very soft sand (which was later described as having the texture of “granulated sugar”).

Nevertheless, at around 2:30 somebody locates the balloon and everybody starts running towards it.  The camera gets to the payload about a minute later, and the students of Project: Space!! waste no time in opening up the payload boxes to collect the data gathered. There is also some time in between for pictures before moving on to recover FAST-6.

Thanks to Scarlett for filming this!

Share Button

FAST Videos: The Full Documentary of FAST-5

This video shows the highlights of the FAST-5 launch, namely the takeoff, burst, and landing. FAST-5 was launched from Nipton, CA, and reached a maximum altitude of 105,000 ft (32,000 m).  Due to good weather and a bit of luck, the payload landed very close to a road just outside the Primm Valley Golf Resort in Primm, NV. This made recovery very easy.

In the video, you can see the slowed burst footage, along with some beautiful stills of the balloon as it pops. Added effects were due to the Sun shining through the balloon and onto the camera before it burst, causing the balloon to glow. As the payload falls, there is also a moment where the camera tumbles to point skyward, showing the rest of the packages and the deployed parachute as the camera hits the ground.

Share Button

FAST Videos: Balloon Burst in Slow Motion

Well, I think it’s about time I get back on this, huh? I got lazy after that one month vacation in Europe, and as fun as it was, scouting prospective landing sites for our floater balloons is useless if nobody knows what they are.

Anyways, this video is a snippet of FAST-4′s upward camera, which caught the balloon as it burst at an altitude of about 112,000 feet (or 34,100 meters).

Some interesting things to note:

  • Instead of staying in one piece, the balloon disintegrates into a bunch of small, confetti-like strips. This is actually by design for most weather balloons, although the strips have a habit of getting tangled in our flight line and parachutes.
  • The balloon starts to rip from one side, which when combined with the strip disintegration mentioned above, causes the burst to look very much like a bubble when it pops.
  • After the balloon bursts, there is a misty cloud of gas left behind in the shape of the balloon. This is actually the helium from inside the balloon, still holding the sphere. The next few frames of the video show the cloud changing as the gases diffuse into the surrounding air (or partial lack thereof).
  • As the payloads start falling again, the camera starts to fall chaotically, and the rest of the string seems to level itself with the top. This “flipout” can cause failure of parachute deployment, due to the strings tangling with other payloads, the balloon strips, or themselves.

All in all, I think this is one of the coolest videos we have gotten back from our cameras. With all our systems working, we usually get a good shot of the burst every launch or so. You can find a few more burst shots scattered through our other videos.

Share Button

Flying Apple makes a 300-mile hole-in-one

You may remember FAST-17, the floater we put up on August 24, 2013. We launched just as the sun was setting at our favorite place in Mesquite, just across into the Arizona border.
FAST-17 neutral buoyancy
The balloon and beacon rose through the night, briefly stopping around 21,000 meters (why?!?!?!), before rising and reaching neutral buoyancy around 27,000 meters (90,000 feet). It hovered there for over four hours before the sun rose, heating the balloon and causing it to rise. From the curve, it appears that it was about to reach its daytime hovering height when it burst, sending the small purple box back to Earth.

That box landed near Fallon, NV. The last beacon was sent just 1000 feet above the ground and looked to be right off of a road. But after a couple of searches, phone calls made and emails sent, there was still no sign of the payload.

Turns out it was hiding in a hole.

After no word for a few weeks, I received an email from “Dan,” an occasional desert wanderer and (apparent) finder of things. I don’t know what par is for space ballooning, but we didn’t just get on the green, we shot a 300 mile hole-in-one.

FAST17 landing
Image credit: Dan

Dan found the FAST-17 payload in a hole, very close to where it was last heard.

FAST 17 recovery area

Let the golf puns begin. Four.

Share Button

Hacking a Weather Balloon

filltubeYesterday, Flying Apple Space Technologies (FAST) launched our 20th mission. The goal of the FAST-20 mission was to put up a neutrally buoyant, “floater” balloon—something that a latex weather balloon is not designed to do. People hack computers, smartphones and software, but here at Flying Apple, we are trying to hack a weather balloon.

The giant latex weather balloons we use are designed to contain a lifting gas, take off the ground an continue to rise and expand until the balloon gets so large that it bursts. (To give you an idea of how large that is, the balloon is about 6 feet in diameter when on the ground, but when it bursts, it can be over 30 feet in diameter–that’s large enough to (uncomfortably) fit a full symphony inside, including the percussionist.)

But we don’t want the balloon to continue to rise and grow. We want it to stop rising and float in the strong winter winds at around 110,000 feet.

Our goal is to add just enough hydrogen for the balloon to get off the ground, but not much more. Using the Alicat Flowmeter of Science, we add hydrogen until the balloon and payloads can be lifted, and then we add just a tiny bit more. The amount of lift that the gas has above and beyond the power to lift the payloads is called “free lift.” We give the balloon just between 50 and 100 grams of free lift, which means that a family mice would be enough to tether it.

In other words, the balloon barely gets off the ground.

Here’s the hack: the latex balloon, which encloses the hydrogen always squeezes down on that gas,  but when the balloon reaches 110,000 feet (or so), where the pressure is low, that squeezing force becomes important. That latex squeezing force compresses the hydrogen gas into a slightly smaller space, displacing less of the surrounding air. If the balloon displaces less of the surrounding air, the upwards, or buoyant force, is slightly smaller as well. That’s what Archimedes was shouting about in the bath.

That’s exactly we are going for. We use the balloon itself to “get rid” of the extra 50-150 grams of free lift that we gave it at launch. That way it will stop rising and start floating. Once up there, the balloon will catch the East wind and fly across the country. All the way from Las Vegas to the Atlantic ocean and, we hope, beyond.

We’ll be attempting to hack weather balloons all winter. We invite you to check out our launch schedule or follow along here.


Share Button