The following was written by VK4DN - David Nebe - as Team Coordinator
We launched from Roma on Sunday morning, 9th July 2017.
Dan VK4OH followed myself and Renee in his 4X4 on Saturday morning from Bundaberg to Roma – so we had two vehicles.
It was a good trip out and we arrived with some daylight remaining and time to set up camp and scope out the best location for launch. Bryce VK4BRD, a local Amateur in Roma, already had the fire going.
We checked our computers to make sure we had an internet connection at the launch site.. It was all good so we had some snags and enjoyed a fire-side chat with some cold beers.
Up early in the morning for some coffee and bacon and eggs before getting everything ready.
Bryce had organised permission for our camp/launch site from Christine - the property owner. Christine and her kids came out to watch the 9:30 Launch.
We also had a visit from the local Roma newspaper reporter who took some photos and interviewed us about the project and Amateur Radio in general.
Due to the planned configuration of the payload, we set everything up on a table and positioned the cameras and electronics inside/outside the foam box.
We used some zip-ties and double sided tape and checked everything was powered up with the batteries.
We were having issues receiving GPS data from the APRS module, (but during the flight it seemed to be sending regular packets which Ross confirmed was working reliably during the flight).
We carried the payload to the launch area where a clean tarp was laid out on the ground and started to fill the balloon with Helium.
The fittings on the Helium bottle gave us some trouble and it took around 30 mins to fill so we were a little behind schedule. (The filling process last year only took a few minutes to complete).
The predictions we had run using the habhub website indicated the balloon was going to travel quite a distance so the plan was to give the balloon a lot of buoyancy so it would get to Burst Altitude quickly so it wouldn’t travel too far from the launch site.
A quick check everything was working, and we let the balloon lift the payload into the sky! Liftoff was around 10:15AM – a very amazing experience to watch!
The balloon gained altitude VERY quickly and started to travel at high speeds – (I think at one point it was travelling up to 240km/h in the Jetstream!)
The Cross-Band radio (a Wouxun KG-UV8D) was having issues – we did make a number of contacts during the flight - but not as many as HABE1 – (it may have been the radio’s power supply was faulty.)
We waited until we had confirmation of the burst and then once we knew it had landed and an approximate location, we packed up camp and headed out along the highway to Tara – It took us around 3.5 hours to get to the landing site.
The balloon payload had landed on private property but as luck would have it, the owner was at the gate when we arrived! – he was happy to give us permission to search for the payload.
Unfortunately, we ran out of daylight so decided to head back into Tara to camp for the night – the plan being to come back in the morning to continue the search.
Dan and Renee and I found a great camp site in Tara which was $5.00 each vehicle for the night. Got the fire going and was an excellent opportunity to chat about amateur radio and all the different aspects of the hobby before crashing out.
Another very early start Monday morning and we headed out to where we knew the balloon had landed. Just to make sure everything was OK, I drove to the main house on the property to ask permission again to continue our search. The owner Darrall was happy to let us do that and so Dan and myself set off on foot into the bush in the general direction of where we thought it would be.
About 15 minutes later, Darrall came up in his 4WD to where Dan and I were searching, to tell us he had found our payload!!
He took us via some tracks to where it was located! It had landed on the ground with the parachute above in a tree.
Unfortunately, some data logging circuit boards and sensors built by Isaac VK4NEU and Peter VK4FPDG had dislodged during the flight and we couldn’t find them. They had been secured by double-sided tape to the top of the foam box, and even though they were light weight, the high winds during the flight must have caused them to dislodge.
We analyzed the camera micro-SD cards and found some video footage of the flight was wiped from memory. Lesson learned, it appears that when the SD cards are filled-up, the camera begins to overwrite the earlier footage. We still have some footage, but not the entire flight.
Overall, it was still an amazing experiment and for HABE3 we will do things better in a number of areas.
That's what Amateur Radio is all about. We have our license so we can explore and experiment with radio equipment.
Thanks to everyone who has been part of HABE2, for all your contributions and encouragement.
It started in mid 2015 with a crazy idea of sending a Helium balloon to a high altitude with a repeater on-board to see what sort of range we could get compared to our repeaters on mountain tops around Bundaberg.
To start the project I invited local Amateurs and Bundaberg club members to come and discuss the project and from the outset we had quite a number of interested people with some useful backgrounds in repeaters, electronics and APRS.
With a core of supporters, the HABE (Hi Altitude Balloon Experiment) discussed all facets of the project over several months.
We discovered that there is an entire industry out there, focussed on HAB launches! - with equipment suppliers dedicated to the design of Balloon payloads as well as flight prediction websites.
Prior to the HABE project, I had no real understanding of APRS traffic and protocols, or for that matter, did I know anything about Helium gas or latex balloons!
A steep learning curve awaited me regarding the different aspects of the electronics and the physics behind successfully launching a balloon to such high altitudes.
Apart from myself, David VK4DN, the core group of amateurs in the HABE project were, Peter VK4FPDG, Bob VK4UD, Ron VK4BRG (SK)and Dan VK4OH. Behind the scenes we had a lot of support from the Club members, the Committee and many others from the world of Amateur Radio.
The further we went, the more we learned about the vast number of things which need to come together for a launch so we reached out to others who had completed successful HAB missions
The first was Brendan VK4HIA from the Sunshine coast(those guys launched from Dalby last year) and a teleconference with him into one of our meetings allowed HABE members to ask lots of questions.
Later Brendan attended one of our meetings in person and loaned us equipment to use in our launch.
The original plan was to build a radio link using two separate Dorji boards which Peter and Ron sourced from China. we also planned to use a third Dorji as the fox we could track once the payload returned to Earth.
Unfortunately programming of these boards was unsuccessful due to poor documentation and/or faulty units so it made more sense to use something off the shelf. At this time we also experimented with having two Baofeng handheld radios connected together, (one as the TX and the other as the RX) - The link was not reliable and the combined weight was not very practical.
A Wouxun Cross-Band radio was chosen due to the fact it could be programmed as a X-Band repeater and locked into that mode.
In the meantime Ross VK4JRO was researching the best frequencies to use – as there was going to be a number of 2Mtr Transmitters on the payload, it made sense to have the uplink on 70cms and the downlink on 2Mtrs.
The frequencies we chose were 431.650Mhz uplink and 145.500Mhz downlink (these are designated as “Experimental Frequencies” in Australia)
Over this time, the HABE team watched many videos of other team’s launches and flights and we were beginning to get a good idea of what to expect with our own project. Our experiment was coming together.
Ron built a dedicated APRS transmitter on the National Australian APRS frequency 145.175Mhz using a RadioMetrix HX1 module and hard-coded the VK4BW-11 callsign into the device.
I took the transmitter on a couple of road trips, where it worked well and we discovered the best batteries to use were Lithium only batteries.
Not only would the Lithium batteries work in the extremely low temperatures at high altitudes, importantly, they were extremely light weight!
Peter ran almost daily flight simulations from various launch locations to see where a balloon might travel. He was giving us "best guesses" as flightpath predictions can only be made 7 days from a launch date, and it's difficult to be accurate when the final weight of the payload wouldn't be known until final assembly.
It was all useful material as we were developing an awareness of Aircraft flightpath considerations, and learning lot about variables.
Next it was time to sources the major components and we contacted Robert VK2URB in Sydney who was able to source our fairly large (1500gram) Latex Balloon.
Robert advised on a number of aspects of the payload design and also helped with getting the approval from CASA for our launch.
The bottle of Helium was purchased, and the Club Members voted overwhelmingly to give financial support to our Special Interest Group and contributed $200 at that point towards the HABE project. (thanks guys and gals!)
Now it was time to dot the I's and cross the T's - we had paperwork to complete with CASA who had final approval on our launch site and launch date.
It became a regular back and forth with Zane from CASA who was extremely helpful during this process. Zane was very patient with me while working on the paperwork for our approval and eventual NOTAM that was issued by CASA.
This made all the difference. We soon discovered we could not launch our balloon anywhere near Bundaberg.
We increased our circle of possibilities, thinking perhaps Gin Gin or Mt Perry, but again, those sites were too close to major aircraft traffic routes.
In the end, we settled on Roma as our launch site and started to lock in some dates for our launch.
As tentative dates were discussed, either predictions of bad weather or people not being available was causing us grief as CASA needed to know - well before approval.
In the end I decided to make the call for Sunday 3rd July 2016 – with a launch window of 0800 – 0830.
Along with myself and Bob, Isaac and his wife Anya, we were the only team members available this weekend to travel to Roma.
Our plan was to leave Bundy on Saturday morning for the 7 hour trip to Roma but as (good) luck would have it, just before leaving, I discovered the fittings we had to connect to the Helium bottle were incorrect (despite being assured by the fellow at the Gas shop, that it was the right one!) Fortunately, they were open on Saturday so we raced there to pick up the right connectors – so onwards to Roma!!
We'd planned to arrive there with plenty of daylight remaining to locate a good launch site however our 9.30am delayed departure meant we arrived in Roma with only 30mins of daylight left.
Again luck was on our side and I received a text from local operator Bryce VK4FMBR asking where we were launching and could he come along to watch? An offer that we jumped at as we could use the extra help with the launch.
When we arrived in Roma, Bryce met us and said he had found a great launch spot, about 7.5km away from the Roma airport (CASA require at least 6kms). We jumped in our cars and followed him to the site and it was a perfect, big open area.
Now that we had our launch site sorted, we went back into town and settled into our hotel rooms.
Bryce showed the HABE team a nearby pub and we all enjoyed a nice meal and a few beers.
We discovered that Bryce had grown up in Roma and works with Careflight as both Base Manager and chopper crew so knew the surrounding area and would be invaluable in helping us navigate to the landing site of the payload.
It was then back to our Motel to build the final assembly and configuration of the payload. The payload was starting to take shape.
Some last-minute decisions were made on which components would be included in the Payload and how each component would be located on the frame.
With copious amounts of gaffa tape and Zip ties firmly secured, we were pretty happy with the final result.
Leaving our motel Sunday morning at 0700hrs we met Bryce at the launch site. First we laid out the 3.5 x 5.3 Mtr ground sheet and secured it with ground stakes.
The payload was transferred and the latex balloon laid out ready for inflation. The helium bottle and filling hose were in position.
As we were rolling out the latex balloon on the ground sheet, it looked discoloured in different sections ... I was very worried it may have degraded during storage! (I thought it might even burst on the launch pad before even getting off the ground!) - I found out later that is common with these balloons, but as you could imagine, at the time it was very scary! we didn't have a second balloon in back up!
Next, the electronics were switched on and tested. And all the various parts were attached to paracord twine.
The payload frame was attached to the parachute which was then attached to the balloon. We had clear blue skies and not a whisper of wind! Perfect conditions for a launch!
Keeping a close eye on the time, we were required to phone Air Services Australia (Air traffic Control) to let them know 30mins prior to our launch. Their operator asked for a further update a few minutes before we were ready to launch.
So now the filling process began, with all the persons handling the balloon wearing surgical gloves, and the balloon began to inflate.
Slowly the balloon lifted from the ground sheet and began lifting a bottle of water attached which weighed 1200grams.
Once we had buoyancy with the water bottle – (same weight as our payload) – I continued adding more helium to the Balloon. After watching so many Youtube videos of other HAB launches, I sort of instinctively knew what to do, although my worst fear was that the balloon would not ascend quickly enough and we would have a “Floater”.
Isaac held the neck of the balloon and let me know when it was getting difficult to hold onto. Once he reported it was really lifting, I had a check myself and was satisfied the balloon had enough lift.
Time to phone Air Services one last time to let them know we were ready to launch.... and they asked us to delay for 5 minutes due to an aircraft in the area... Talk about suspense!
* * * * * * * *
Finally, after almost 12 months of planning, this was the moment of truth!
We are ready to launch the HABE-1.
After the ceremonious countdown from 10 to zero, I let go of the final cord and the balloon went straight up!
Cameras on tripods were clicking away pointing to the sky trying to get photos as it rapidly gained altitude! After a couple of minutes watching the balloon go skywards on it’s journey to the stratosphere, we packed everything up and went back to our Mission Control station at the Motel. (I had previously arranged with the owner for a late checkout so we could spend the morning watching the balloon’s progress where we had a solid internet connection and Mobile phone coverage).
About 20 minutes or so into the flight, the APRS data started to show up on the aprs.fi website.
That was really exciting to see as we now knew the altitude and GPS data would be available during the entire flight.
A few minutes after that, we started to hear VK stations working the X-Band radio on the payload. These contacts were coming in hard and fast! – in total, we worked 22 stations from Tara, Warwick, Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Nanango, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Redcliffe, Caboolture and others with the promise of a special event QSL card to all contacts.
At this point, the excitement we all shared was amazing! We had achieved what we had set out to do! Our balloon had reached a very high altitude (last known at just under 33,000 metres) and we were able to contact stations throughout Queensland via the X-band radio link.
Once we had confirmed the Burst event, (the balloon would have burst with a diameter of 10Mtrs at that altitude) we knew the payload was on it’s way back to Earth.
We continued to work stations for about another 15 minutes before the payload was at a low altitude.
Thanks to the addition of the Spot Tracker – we had a pretty good idea of where it had landed. A last minute check on Google Maps and we had the Lat./Lon coordinates.
Bryce once again led the way and so we all got into our vehicles again and headed East from Roma to recover our payload.
It took us about an hour or so travelling and then after opening and closing a few gates on dirt roads and getting permission from a land owner, we reached a spot close to where we thought the payload had landed.
We were able to key up the X-Band radio with our hand-held radios (so we knew we were getting close!)
After trekking through some bushland our direction finding gear was giving us confusing directions. It took about 1hr or so to finally locate the payload. Bryce was using a type of field strength meter which he eventually used to located the payload. The payload had landed in an open field (not in a tree!) which was great.
Of course finding the payload made the whole mission a huge success! (allowing us to recover all the hardware and video footage)
Bob and I decided to stay in Roma for another night to spend some more time with Bryce, heading back to Bundy the following morning.
Recovering the payload meant also that we had all the video footage of the entire flight on the camera’s SD card.
Some of the photos were breathtaking!!
What an amazing feeling it was to see this project happen! It was a once in a lifetime experience. (well we might attempt another one)
Thanks to Peter VK4FPDG for running flight predictions and the research.
Ron VK4BRG for building the APRS transmitter and attending all the planning meetings.
Dan VK4OH, who helped in the planning and would have loved to been at the Launch, but couldn’t be there.
Bob VK4UD who was a real asset at the launch and contributed the camera we used for the flight..
Isaac VK4NEU and his XYL Anya who came along at the last minute and were great to have on the team!
A thank you to Robert Brand VK2URB for his time helping with the CASA approval and his advice regarding payload design.
A special thanks to Bryce VK4FMBR from Roma for securing a great Launch site, and being part of the team. You also had the honor of finding the Payload!
And finally the Bundaberg Amateur Radio Club members and committee who supported the project from day one!
Thanks to Ross for advice on some of the technical aspects.
A 100 things could have gone wrong, but in the end it all came together!
Well done guys!!
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