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History of Balloon Launches in Saskatoon

The winters in Saskatchewan can be a bit long so we often look for something to take our minds off of it. Late in the fall of 2007 while warming ourselves in a local coffee shop, Gus (VE5SPI) brought up the idea of launching a high altitude balloon. We discussed some of the things we could do and what each of us would like to accomplish. We agreed that we would at least want to fly an APRS tracker as well as take pictures during the flight. We also discussed the possibility of some type of voice repeater but it soon became obvious that we should keep our first flight relatively simple. At this point all we really knew was that our project would involve a balloon, hopefully going high. We knew then that we had a few things to learn. Our hope was that we could introduce new aspects of amateur radio to local members as well as promote existing areas such as APRS and fox hunting and have a heck of a good time doing it. An idea was born.

Early on we decided that no idea would be too crazy for consideration.  The only limitations would be size and weight. Our entire payload had to fit in an 8 inch cube. We also set a target of 500 grams each for our individual payloads. Based on this, we decided that that each of us would be responsible for the design and assembly of our own payloads. We were also having trouble coming up with a suitable name and acronym for our project so we decided to give ourselves official sounding titles instead as you will see below.

Over the next few weeks we immersed ourselves in the information on the various ballooning web sites. We knew we would want to use APRS as a
method of tracking and we also wanted to bring back pictures from the ede of space. Another local ham, Bob (VE5RGM) had often mentioned the idea of
flying balloons and kites. Bob was instrumental in getting the local ATV repeater on the air in 1998 so it was only natural that he would introduce the idea of flying an ATV transmitter. Bob set to work designing an ATV payload. His home ATV transmitter was too large and heavy for a balloon so he purchased a smaller one from another local ham. By now, it was obvious that Bob had become our ATV Payload Specialist.

Gus began work on a Byonics PocketTracker that he had purchased a couple of years ago but never assembled. Our research showed that the Rand McNally GPS that he already owned should work above 60,000 feet. Gus works for a local electronics distributor so he has easy access to technical information. This would be vital for our research into battery technologies. Gus also took on the task of parachute research. This meant that we had to call him our Tracking, Power and Recovery Specialist.  I also wanted to fly APRS but took a different approach. I chose to use an OpenTracker, an old Motorola MX330 radio and a Garmin GPS18. I also took on the task of building our payload capsule, primarily because I already had a large sheet of Styrofoam insulation in my basement that had been purchased for another project that never got off the ground. I also found a source for balloons and ordered 3. A local surplus store had
digital cameras on sale just before Christmas and I just couldn’t resist, so I bought two, one for still pictures, and one for video clips. There was no turning back now. I guess this makes me the Lift, Imaging and Assembly Specialist. I also made a fluorescent orange slip cover for the payload box, so I’m sometimes referred to as the Chief Seamstress, but I don’t like to talk about that.

As I mentioned our winters are long but they’re often cold too. This would normally be a problem for unless you want to do low temperature testing of your balloon payload. In January, the whole province is like one big cryo-chamber. After roughly assembling my APRS module, two cameras and a battery pack, it was time do some testing. I turned everything on and placed it outside at -20 for a few of hours. It faired very well, but it didn’t really tell us what would happen at -40 and below. I would just have to wait … but not for long. In late January the temperature finally took its usual dive. Outside it was -39 with a wind chill of about -60, a perfect night for a test. I bundled myself, slipped outside and put the payload in the wind swept driveway. I then retreated
to the warmth of the house and a steaming cup of tea, where I monitored the temperature and battery voltage via APRS. Three hours later, the
payload internal temperature was still above freezing and the battery was going strong. “Good enough for me”, I thought.

Meanwhile, my two co-designers were also hard at work. Gus purchased a parachute made from one panel of each of the brightest fluorescent colours he could find. He had also did some research onto battery technologies.  As many other balloonists have also found, lithium batteries were the clear winner. Other experienced balloonist had cautioned us against using a single power source for all of our modules. We took this advice to heart, and each of became responsible for our own power system. Bob chose to use high capacity lithium AA cells. I chose to use lithium CR123A cells. As of this writing, Gus has not  chosen which battery he will use, but it’s probably safe to bet it will be different than either Bob or I have chosen. Only in ham radio can everyone do everything differently and still all be right.

As the planned launch date for the first balloon of May rapidly approaching we finalized most parts of our design. We will be flying two independent APRS trackers, an ATV transmitter, one still camera and one video camera. Both APRS trackers will operate on 144.390 MHz. VE5AA-12 will be the 300 mW PocketTracker, Rand McNally GPS using a coaxial dipole below the payload. VE5AA-11 will be a 3 watt transmitter, Open Tracker monitoring battery voltage and internal and external temperatures and a Garmin GPS18 using a vertical 1/4 wave ground plane antenna built into the top of the payload. The ATV Transmitter will be a 1 watt PC Electronics AM transmitter operating on 439.250 MHz and using an inverted 1/4 wave ground plane antenna built into the bottom of the payload. The camera package is built from two Polaroid iZone i310 digital cameras with 1GB memory cards and a custom made controller board. Our next instalment will contain technical details on the entire payload and each of our modules. 73, and happy ballooning.

Bruce – VE5BNC

On December 28, 2011 we lost our friend and founding member of the SABRE ballooning group Gus, VE5SPI - (Silent Key). Gus was the one that originally came up with the idea to get into this crazy pastime and we will miss him very much.