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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A470, SPOT GPS, and a bigger balloon

Well, things are moving along but I've learned a few lessons. I wanted to keep this as cheap as possible, so I bought the smallest balloons I thought might do the job. Since 15 cubic feet of helium will lift one pound, and my payload is around that, I thought several 30 gram balloons would do the trick. They will not. In fact, the 200 gram balloon would only lift the GPS-enabled phone and NOT the camera at all. So, I went ahead and ordered a 500-gram balloon. With a 10-foot diameter and around 523 cubic feet of helium at normal inflation size, it should have PLENTY of free lift to get the job done. I need the balloon to go up as fast as possible, while still having enough space within the balloon to burst at over 100,000 feet. Actually, my 300 cubic-foot helium tank won't will it up but a bit over half-way. 300 cubic feet should provide 20 pounds of lift, and given that my craft should weigh around 1 pound this thing should really fly!

Another issue I've decided warrants change is my boostmobile i290 phone. It only works if the cellphone has reception, and I looked at my coverage map on boost mobile's wasn't pretty. I could attempt it anyway, add an antenna and see if it holds up but given the fact I live in a rural, heavily wooded area (timber is big business here) I think it would be a fool's game to try and launch anyway. I need a GPS receiver that doesn't use cellphone coverage at all. So, enter the SPOT GPS unit. Yes, it's about $100 for the unit, shipping, and then another $9.99 per month for coverage and $49.99 per year for tracking, I think the added security is worth it. I can also see the value of having it since several years ago I went sailing and was literally marooned with my son on a small island...luckily I had my cellphone and was able to call my wife, who called the authorities and came to get us (and our boat which had gotten loose and sailed away by itself....) but if my phone hadn't had coverage or had died I would have been in real trouble until they finally launched a rescue effort; hours or days later without any food or water...

So, I justified the expense and bought it. I think it's a wise investment. Also, I figured out how to turn the LCD off on my Canon A470. I plan on putting at least two cameras in the payload if weight allows, because I'm also concerned about the risk of camera failure or not getting the "sunrise over the sphere of the earth" shot I'm wanting. One camera will take stills every 5 seconds, and another will take video; if I can put a third, it will too take stills on other side of the balloon.

I also found out about helium cost yesterday. The welding supply guys were eager to help out, and said if I kept the tank over a weekend they'd only charge a $50 deposit on the tank which would be refunded when I return it. It is normally almost $500 per month to rent the tank. 300-cubic feet of helium is $100, which isn't outside my budget. So, I'll have plenty of helium, a tank to put it in, and the project is coming together. Altogether, what I'll be launching appears to have a cost of around $250-300, which will be fine considering the upgrades I've added. I just can't justify using only a cellphone GPS phone when coverage is only a few miles east & west of my area. If the phone goes outside of that range, It will be unable to receive the cell phone signals and given the isolated nature of southern Arkansas, I'll likely never find it....maybe a random hunter might see it but the woods around here supposedly hide Bigfoot as well...if Bigfoot can hide here, so can my payload! I'm not risking it. The GPS unit will be worthwhile and the battery life is rated at 2-3 weeks so I see little risk in using it unless the unit completely fails for some reason. Even if I only have a broad search area, I will have at least a week or two to find it....that's good enough for me. The accuracy is supposed to be with 20-feet which should be plenty. I find that to be an acceptable risk.

So when is the launch date? I'm hoping sometime in March. Maybe spring break would be the best time, from March 19th to the 29th...that will give me time to wait for low wind conditions and the perfect launch time...

Remember, we're launching before sunrise so I can try and get a photo/video of the sun coming around the sphere of the earth! A view normally seen by the few who fly and work in space. I'm looking forward to making space accessible to the masses. A pipe dream maybe? I think given time, the right individuals, and donations/profits we can build a small restaurant with a fabulous view. Are you ready? If my first camera launch is successful and I get my sunrise photos, I'll start this program in earnest and enlist the help of my colleagues at HSU. A high-altitude zeppelin with a restaurant and viewing area could be very profitable, and relatively cheap to run vs. rides on the ISS, a Soyuz capsule around the moon, or a "budget" $200,000 Space Ship Two ticket for 5-minutes of weightlessness....

No, you won't get the weightlessness with my near-space ship, but you'll have one heck of a view and potentially stay for hours and hours...maybe even the evening or night if I can build a small hotel or bedrooms. The airships of the early 20th century also had something similar, but I guess they didn't want to or have the ability to go up to 100,000 feet or so.

That's one more issue for research: airship design and operation. Most of this comes from the early 1900's and one might think it's out of date, but that was when airships were the primary mode of intercontinental transportation (besides boats). Heck, even the Hindenburg travelled across the Atlantic 17 times and only crashed and burned when they applied a type of paint that was highly flammable...not a good idea with a hydrogen-filled craft.

Actually, I've considered hydrogen because at 100K feet there is very little air. Certainly not enough for combustion...but still, I don't think my restaurant could become a reality if I used hydrogen...10% greater lift and they can hold 50% more fuel than a helium-filled craft, but people have these images of the Hindenburg in their heads despite the fact that helium craft can and have fallen out of the sky ("Oh, the humanity!" Remember that one? Well....I've seen the old newsreel of it but of course I wasn't there :-)).

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