Update #20 – BIG Update/s

It’s a been a BIG week here for the project. This will be a general update and I can drill into more detail on each of these in subsequent updates as I get time; I just feel like I need to get some of this down ‘on paper’ and keep everyone in the loop. Each one of these is deserving of it’s own post over on starduster.info. This is happening quick and I need to be disciplined enough to document the process for later.

1) The actual payload container got built and I’m testing it as much as I care to without risking wear or damage. The technique I used was identical to what I posted a few updates ago but that one didn’t have windows cut for the camera and the volume was 160% of what we really needed [too big]. It will not be wasted though; that demo container may still see service in the future.

I spent 3-4 days getting the ‘flow’ down for using the hot-knife to shape the foam to accept a GoPro form-factor. I’m sure there are ways to mill it out on a fancy machine but I’ve got it down to about 6 steps and it takes me 8-10 minutes to carve one out.

Test runs
Test runs

I came home Tuesday evening and the construction juices were flowing. I cut 6 pieces of foam to size on the desk. Got two carved up for cameras and then started gluing 5 of the 6 to form the ‘box’. Once the glue had set a bit, I cut 12x 2″ wooden dowels and starting reinforcing the joints using the ‘hot-knife-drill-press’ method demonstrated last week.

The 6 pieces of foam for the box were cut to a specific size (as opposed to purchased and used straight from the store) and they were imperfectly cut (it’s hard!). The customized and imperfect cuts meant there were some gaps in the seams and the answer was, of course, duct tape. I had standard grey on hand but I may come back over it with some high-viz neon version they produce.

After confirming the fit of the cameras, I built a spacer and ‘shelf’ that pins the cameras into their positions and doesn’t allow for movement inside the container. MOST people just tape them to the walls of the container from the inside but I was looking for something a little more elegant. There are a few positive side-effects: the internal foam reinforces the whole structure, allows me to ‘fix’ and suspend the GPS tracker inside without having to tape it down or carve up another wall, the foam also cuts down on the volume of air we’ll have to keep warm.

We weigh somewhere between 1.6 and 1.8 pounds. WAY below the 4 pound limit I’ve attempted to operate under.

2) Balloon[s] were purchased and are shipping now. Ordering is pretty straightforward but it was a fun adventure in northeast ‘culture’.

Kaymont is THE place people go to buy balloons but they have no online ordering. The website sucks (no pricing, just a list of part numbers) and you better do your own research and know exactly what you want because they aren’t too keen on customer service. Everything is by phone and they assume you’re ‘in the business’. They aren’t here to hold your hand. Basic transcript follows. You have to read ‘Mike’s’ part in the thickest New York accent you can muster, and be real short and annoyed when you do:

M: Kaymont. This is Mike
J: I’m calling about balloons?
M: Yeah
J: … I’d like to buy some?
M: Yeah
J: Do you have 1000g and 1200g?
M: Yeah
J: Price?
M: Where we shipping? You ordered here before?
(You get the idea)

In Texas, there would have been a discussion about balloon sizes, helium sources, high-school football scores, local barbeque tips, and pie recipes exchanged.

I ordered 3 and they arrive tomorrow. They aren’t cheap but I assumed for the shipping cost and effort, buying 3 made sense for an emergency and future launches for this project or my own personal ‘missions’ in the future.

3) Parachute[s] were purchased and arrived today. This is just a fun sentence to type and it’s more fun to say aloud.

I was out drinking coffee and doing some research as a friend shoulder-surfed my monitor and asked ‘What are you doing?’ to which I replied ‘Buying parachutes’. My friends know me and didn’t flinch. ‘Of course [Josh] is buying parachutes’.

I got 2x. They are bright red and about 3ft across. They will bring a 2lb payload down to the ground at 17.9 ft/sec (12.2 mph).

I would be outside right now with one strapped to my back, riding around the neighborhood but my bike tires are flat. Dad suggested I ‘jump off the roof’. Hi Dad!

Found a demo photo
Found a demo photo

4) Radar reflector[s] were purchased and shipping. The balloon ‘strand’ will include a balloon, a parachute, the payload and a radar reflector. It’s an 11″ sphere built of 3 Mylar covered circles, turned at 90 degrees to each other.

This configuration is known as a corner reflector, and because of the geometry, it will return a radar sweep directly back the sender. It’s basically the anti-stealth and you can find them on sailing websites because they are required for safety on open water.


I don’t know how much difference it will make. Aviation radar may get a primary return but they won’t have any altitude encoding. We’ll just be a ‘blip’ on the radar if they even see us. BUT if we file a NOTAM (Notice to airmen) that specifies the estimated launch and recovery times and the estimated route of flight, they’ll have a better grasp on who we are and route we might take. They will give verbal advisories to any aircraft near that corridor or might even reroute some aircraft if there is a need.


5) Phone and email messages left with Ft Worth FSDO. The airspace we will be operating in is controlled by the Ft Worth Flight Standards District Office. The Fizz-Doe is in charge of certification and operations, enforcement of airmen and aircraft regulations, and permits.

Some people interpret the rules as ‘if the payload is under 4 pounds, we don’t have to tell the government anything as long as we aren’t intentionally launching near an airport or crashing into a populated area.’

Will be operating an unmanned free balloon according to Federal Regulations as specified by:
PART 101—MOORED BALLOONS, KITES, AMATEUR ROCKETS AND UNMANNED FREE BALLOONS http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div5&node=14:

According to Subpart A – General §101.1 Applicability. (4) Except as provided for in §101.7, any unmanned free balloon that—(i) Carries a payload package that weighs more than four pounds and has a weight/size ratio of more than three ounces per square inch on any surface of the package, determined by dividing the total weight in ounces of the payload package by the area in square inches of its smallest surface;
§101.7 Hazardous operations.
(a) No person may operate any moored balloon, kite, amateur rocket, or unmanned free balloon in a manner that creates a hazard to other persons, or their property.
(b) No person operating any moored balloon, kite, amateur rocket, or unmanned free balloon may allow an object to be dropped therefrom, if such action creates a hazard to other persons or their property.

I’m seeking clarification on the steps we need to follow to keep the FAA happy. A radar reflector and issuing a NOTAM 24 hours prior, followed up by a phone call to announce launch and a phone call to confirm recovery will go a LONG way to keeping them happy.

6) Helium pricing and delivery dates are 90% firm. We are going to be under budget on helium

I had a good conversation with a local helium dealer and former neighbor this afternoon. Apparently helium prices are WAY down from 3-4 months ago and this is a better time for our launch. Helium is a scarce resources and prices were high for a few years.

Helium contracts in some industries are long term (5+ years) and helium providers have to honor those contracts way longer than they can afford to from ‘years ago’ pricing agreements. This (pun) inflates the cost to users in the general public because we have to pay a huge retail markup.

It seems some of those major contracts are expiring and the industry folks don’t like the new prices so they are buying more appropriate volumes at the new pricing. This means the market demand is down and supplies are coming back up which is good for the ‘little guys’ like me and kids that like party balloons.

In my head I was budgeting ~$220 and we may be closer to ~$130-160.

I still need to work out a valve and tubing etc.

Example of what some people build
Example of what some people build

That’s enough for tonight. There’s a lot left to do but the major items are here or en-route to the house. Winds continue to be awful. I think Nov 30, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first window for launch. Stand by for updates!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s