Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning: Excitement is in the Air!

For those of us who dreamed of being rocket scientists but never quite made it, Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning is heaven sent, literally.  Since the invention of ARHAB in 1967 and the re-launching of the pastime in 1987, the hobby has sky rocketed and as an enthusiast myself, I could not be happier for the new found excitement.

What exactly is Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning, or ARHAB?  It is, simply put, sending a balloon into space with a parachute for recovery with at least one package aboard that includes a radio transmitter which tracks the flight.

The trackers are perhaps the most intriguing part of the set up.  There are many to choose from.  The most common is the Automatic Position Reporting System tracker that changes to a digital radio transmission when it communicates with the Global Positioning System receiver.  Some though, use a beacon that works off an analog system and still others transmit slow data like Morse code and PSK31.  Of course to transmit through these technologies, you do have to have an amateur license unless you operate under a non-amateur transmitter.

Other packages that might be sent along for the ride are sensors, cameras and instruments that log data that can be examined.  Amateur television is also sometimes sent which is really awesome to watch because it transmits real footage of the journey.  BalloonSats are quite popular too.

The typical balloon used is a weather balloon which is made of latex and endures for around 3 hours.  There has been a rush of other types of balloons like zero-pressure balloons, super-pressure balloons and other fancy versions but the weather balloon remains the most dependable.

The Great Plains Super Launch is the Super Bowl for Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning.  It happens once a year and is a celebration of enthusiasts both on site and online.  Those who cannot physically attend can follow the balloons online.

So where exactly do these balloons go?  Near space is the term coined to entail the atmosphere that is over 60,000 feet but not as high as the formal term of space which is 328,000 feet up.  In Near Space, there is a 99% vacuum and sometimes even greater which makes for a temperature of -60 as an average.  It is an atmosphere that remains within the ozone layer so it is exposed to ultraviolet radiation making the trips even trickier.  In fact, radiation in this cosmic area is 100 times more than on earth at sea level.  Balloons are filled with helium or hydrogen in order to reach this area of Near Space.

Why do enthusiasts send balloons up into Near Space?  There are many reasons people get involved in this hobby.  Some, like myself, have been intrigued in doing so since childhood.  It is just exciting to some to launch an object into this mysterious atmosphere and to pilot the feat from start to finish and to observe the material that is received back.  Others are more into doing various experiments and research the feedback for the purpose of their studies.

Don’t knock it until you try it!  Unless you have personally piloted a ship that has gone from a mere balloon on ground to the wild blue yonder, you have never experienced the childhood wonder coupled with the powerful feeling that any rocket scientist must possess.  It’s uplifting, enlightening and educational all at the same time.  If you have the slightest bit of interest, you might visit the Great Plains Super Launch or at least log on and follow the balloons without ever leaving your house.  Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning…excitement is in the air!

Updated: February 3, 2015 — 9:02 am
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