“Ground Control to Anacapa School” – A near space mission

T-minus four days, nine hours until lift off of AAHAB-1, Anacapa School’s first near space probe!  What is a near space probe?  Never mind that … what is “near space?”

Over the past few years the proliferation of GPS-enabled devices, as well as compact and light-weight digital photography, has helped give bloom to a burgeoning movement of amateur balloonists.  These are not the Around the World in 80 Days-types that hope to circumnavigate the globe in a luxury appointed airship, but rather groups of hackers and makers who combine smart phones and Arduinos to create sophisticated weather balloons for a fraction of the cost traditionally spent by the National Weather Service and the U.S. military to explore the upper atmosphere.  Near space, specifically the region of the Earth’s atmosphere between 65,000 and 100,000 feet above sea level (MSL), is the destination of choice for these amateur explorers.

Just about six months ago, four high school students from Anacapa School and I began planning to launch a high altitude balloon.  Anacapa School is not the first educational group to attempt a flight like this (college-age MIT students from the 1337arts group claim to have done it for $150 in 2009), but we are certainly the first high school club in this region to organize a student-run flight.  Our group, the Anacapa Near Space Exploration Club (ANSEC), decided that its radiosonde should contain the typical digital camera as well as a number of additional instruments to measure barometric pressure, temperature, humidity and even radiation levels in the environment both inside and outside of the four-pound foam cooler.

Few Earth-bound objects ever find their way up to the thin air of 100,000 feet MSL, the altitude at which we expect our balloon will burst and begin its return to the surface.  A typical jet airliner tops off below 40,000 feet and even the most powerful military jets are just now finding their way above 60,000 ft.  At its apex over Central California, AAHAB-1’s onboard camera will be able to see (assuming clear skies and high visibility) from San Francisco to Mexico to Las Vegas, over 400 miles in all directions, while the barometer will measure less than one percent of the atmospheric pressure found at sea level (99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere will be below the probe at this height).

The launch, weather permitting, is scheduled to take place Saturday May 21, from one of several predetermined launch sites on the Central Coast of California.  Over the next couple weeks I will continue posting information here on Maaia.com, including a complete project report and instructions to teachers and other individuals who wish to replicate a similar flight.  For those interested in tracking the progress of the flight, we are using the amateur radio Amateur Packet Reporting System (APRS) to track AAHAB-1 using amateur radio call sign K6LCM-11.  The onboard APRS unit will send frequent position reports to amateur radio stations across the region which will, in turn, map the flight on APRS.fi in real-time.  Click here to follow along on Saturday morning using a Google Maps-based APRS system.

The first media release we sent out about the project from Anacapa School explains some more details about the flight as well.  Stay tuned for more followup information.

Update May 21, 2011: Listen to the public radio story about the launch!