TALES FROM MAKE: BLOG Nerds in Space By Bre Pettis
Makezine.com’s Weekend Projects shoots for the stratosphere.
FIVE SNAPS UP: Four
cameras point outward to
capture a 180° panoramic
image from space. Using
the MAKE Controller, they
take a picture every 7 seconds. A fifth, hacked CVS
camera on the bottom gets
the first 20 minutes of
flight on video.
Every week I publish a Weekend Projects
video that teaches you how to make something.
Sometimes it’s a straightforward project like how to
make a workbench, and sometimes it’s an ambitious
collaborative project like my recent near-space
balloon project code-named AHAB — A High
For this podcast I needed help, and my friends
at the Public N3rd Area (PNA) workshop in South
Seattle stepped up to hatch a plan. The idea was to
send a weather balloon and its payload up higher
than airplanes can fly, to take pictures where the sky
is black and you can see the curvature of the Earth.
Near-space weather balloon flights have been
done before, but we had some ideas to make this
To take a super-wide panorama, we packed in 4
cameras and a MAKE Controller to fire them off
every 7 seconds. We added a hacked CVS video
camera and pointed it downward to get the first
20 minutes of the ascent on video.
We built two different tracking systems. The first
was a standard beacon that used a ham radio,
GPS receiver, and Tiny Trak position encoder to
broadcast location data to local repeaters and then
onto the internet. Our backup system was an inexpensive cellphone loaded with Mologogo software,
which beacons GPS data over the cell network.
Some clever programming made all of this available
for the world to watch live on Google Earth.
Using a free wiki at balloon.pbwiki.com made
collaborating on the project easy. Each person was
responsible for researching and building a component
for the launch, and we aggregated all the intelligence
we had onto the wiki. Without the wiki, this project
would have been a nightmare to organize. And it
now stands as a document for anyone else to follow
in our footsteps and recreate the project.
Our first attempt to fly the balloon, on March 3,
was averted due to weather. We got out to Coulee
City and found snow and dense fog. The FAA
requires at least 50% clear skies, and we couldn’t
even see 40 feet. We settled on a tethered test and
sent the payload up 150 feet. All systems checked
out, and we learned a lot about how to make it
better. When we got back, we made a number of
On April 7, we returned to eastern Washington,
and a month made all the difference. Temperatures
were in the 70s and skies were clear; we were all
set for takeoff. We were in constant contact with
the FAA and local airports to let them know what
we were up to, so they could keep airplanes out
of the neighborhood of our launch.
Photography by Bre Pettis
190 Make: Volume 10