Kurtis Chen

Articles

To the edge of space / Part one

That little slab of glass and metal in your pocket — the one you complain is too slow or doesn't have enough battery life — is really an incredible, impossible piece of engineering. It can communicate over at least five different radio bands (without long, unsightly antennas), take pictures, stream porn, and count your steps. It took trying me trying to build a near space balloon to realize this myself.

A lot of people dream of space travel. Some other people dream of sending telescopes and probes into space. Since I am neither rich or qualified enough to do either, I've instead had a dream about sending a balloon right to the edge of it.

My desire to send an object up to 100000 ft is, no doubt, fuelled by the recent love mass media has given space. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian — It's hard to ignore that the public has finally (re)started taking interest in the sky again. This type of curiosity fuels progress.


Challenges

Launching a weather balloon to the edge of space isn't particularly difficult. Or particularly expensive. It's the recovery part that's hard. How do you track an object that will likely travel hundreds of kilometres away from you?

 Space shuttle Endeavour straddling the stratosphere (light blue layer). Unsurprisingly, it's really cold there.

Space shuttle Endeavour straddling the stratosphere (light blue layer). Unsurprisingly, it's really cold there.

As it turns out, a lot of GPS units stop working above 59000ft (to avoid people making their own ICBMs). There's also the problem of transmitting data over such large distances; standard cellular service cuts out pretty quickly when you're flying up. Many other alternatives seem to require an amateur radio license and/or lots of power.

It's also really, really cold up there. Up to -60C cold. Most electronics aren't rated to operate at temperatures that low, so insulation will be key.


Arduino

Before considering the type of GPS and transmitter I would use, I had to consider the brain that would tie all of this together. There's off-the-shelf solutions that already do all of this, but I was in the mood to build something (and save some money).

For many makers, tinkerers, and DIYers, Arduino is the answer. Arduino makes several models of low-cost micro controllers, with the Arduino Uno being their most popular model. The Arduino system is also open source, meaning there are tonnes of resources available online.

 An Arduino Uno

The next steps

Finding a suitable GPS unit, data transmission system, additional sensors (just for fun), and a container to put everything into will be next.