Canadian Amateur Balloon Launch

Albertans’ balloon launch out of this world
by: Anna Mehler Paperny
CanWest News Service; Edmonton Journal –

EDMONTON -Tony Rafaat didn’t send an object into space, but he came pretty close.

Almost 120,000 feet above sea level, to be exact.

Rafaat and several of his friends, all amateur radio aficionados, launched a weather balloon into near-space earlier this month. It was the sixth-highest launch of its kind in the world.

They have the photos to prove it.

“It was a real dream for me,” Rafaat said. “I guess it was my baby to a large extent, but it wouldn’t have happened without others’ help.”

After reading an article online about someone in California who launched a weather balloon with a camera, radio transmitter and tracking device attached, the schoolteacher couldn’t resist the project’s educational potential.

“I thought, wow, that’s really neat,” he said. “From an educational perspective this type of a project encompasses many subject areas. Of course science, mathematics, geography. You can also get into (a language arts) component – you could do poetry, you could do art.”

Rafaat connected with several like-minded Albertans to form SABLE – the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment. The aim was to launch a helium-filled weather balloon attached to a parachute and to a container with a camera, a GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking device, a radio transmitter and an antenna.

The camera took one photo per minute and the GPS device monitored the balloon’s location. The radio transmitter and antenna relayed the information back to the crew’s radios on the ground.

There was much groundwork to be laid, however, before liftoff could take place.

The crew needed to determine how much helium it needed to fill the balloon and how to keep all the fragile equipment safe and functioning in a cold, low-pressure environment. Barry Sloan, a former technician, custom-designed an antenna and wiring that connected a GPS device to the radio transmitter.

People launching balloons with a gas capacity of less than 115 cubic feet are encouraged to notify Nav Canada, but there are no regulations governing their launch.

The volume of the SABLE balloon was about 95 cubic feet.

Rafaat estimates the whole experiment cost about $400, with the most expensive item being a $130 digital camera bought off eBay.

After two unsuccessful attempts in the spring and summer of 2006, one of which resulted in the balloon becoming tangled in the branches of a tree, the crew tried again on Aug. 11.

The experiment’s third incarnation, SABLE-3, was a success.

“It was a really textbook mission,” Rafaat said. “It worked really well.”

The balloon rose at a rate of 783 metres per minute. As it rose, the pressure drop caused the balloon to expand to a diameter of 40 feet – eight times what it had been when it was launched.

“You could see what appeared to be a small, white dot rising through the blue of the sky,” Rafaat said. “Of course you can see it, ’cause now it’s the size of a bungalow.”

At about 36,000 metres, the balloon reached its capacity and popped, beginning its descent. The balloon landed about 100 kilometres north-east of the launch location, near Vegreville, Alta.

For Rafaat, who works in photography on the side, the camera was an important component of the experiment.

“I wanted a photo from near space which contains both the black of space, the upper stratosphere and the curve of the Earth.”

He got his dream photo, too: a blue planet, visible through mottled white clouds, with surreal layers of blue and black above the horizon.

“Pretty amazing,” he said.