envitonment(pic of atmosphere in library)
By Peter Gibbs
They call it HABing (high altitude ballooning), and it is the most fun
you can have with a balloon without leaving the safety of the ground.
And it is why two years after discovering this fast-growing pastime, I
found myself bumping along a dirty road in a battered pickup truck
with two friends, Andrew Ashe and Jerry Sandys.
A Yagi directional radio aerial was held out of one window and a
smartphone out of the other as we chased our lovingly built
contraption across the stunning countryside of the east African
country of Malawi.
Fill a standard weather balloon with helium, attach a payload with
action cameras and tracking electronics – plus a parachute for the
descent – and watch it climb into the stratosphere. That, essentially,
is amateur high altitude ballooning.
Some are attracted by the technical challenge, but for me it is all
about the stunning imagery of our amazing atmosphere, bringing back
At 30km (18 miles) altitude, over 90% of the atmosphere is below the
balloon, nothing but blackness above.
Anyone who has been on an aircraft with me knows they will never win
the fight for a window seat. As a meteorologist and frankly a weather
geek, I always grab the chance to get on personal terms with the
And clouds do not come more impressive than a 10-mile high tropical
cumulonimbus, so when Andrew suggested that we mount a HAB expedition
to Malawi I immediately agreed.
There then followed many months of planning and testing.
In Malawi you cannot just pop down to the nearest electronics store if
something breaks. All the hours spent slaving over a hot soldering
iron on the kitchen table are wasted if you do not get the payload
So my technically-minded co-balloonists Andrew and Jerry came up with
a couple of simple but sophisticated tracking devices by bolting
together bits of electronics sourced on the internet.
Both use a GPS receiver chip wired in to a micro-computer to work out
the position and speed of the balloon.
One unit sends this back to a ground receiver via radio and also acts
as a radio beacon when on the ground. The other tracker uses a nifty
low-power device called a Rockblock to fire off the data to an Iridium
satellite 500 miles above, onward to a UK server and then to our
The final backup is a message written on the outside of the box: “If
you find this, please call… ”
We do have some rudimentary control over the flight path of the balloon.
Increase the amount of gas and the balloon rises faster and bursts
sooner. Less gas and you will go higher but stay in the air for longer
and so get carried further by the winds.
Plugging these figures into a trajectory app gives the expected flight
path and landing area which can easily be 50-100km away.
But with so many variables you can never be sure where you will end up
and that is all part of the fun.
Once, we recovered a payload from the middle of a polo club in
Gloucestershire and on another occasion commandeered a fishing boat to
go searching in the English Channel after a miscalculation brought the
package down a mile offshore.
Searching for the high altitude weather balloon in a field
The payload can travel miles from the launch site
We did not recover the payload, but we learnt a lot about the lives of
The stratosphere lies at an altitude of between roughly 10km and 50km
and is one of the least studied parts of our atmosphere, too high for
most aircraft to fly and too low for satellites.
Until recently, it was only expensive missions with huge balloons like
the one used by Felix Baumgartner in his record-breaking parachute
jump that were able to collect scientific data, but thanks to cheap
electronics there is now enough capacity in amateur payloads to bring
back useful results.
A group of high school students in California have even sent up
bacteria to see how they cope with conditions similar to those on
We flew a Geiger counter package in Malawi for a professor at the
University of Reading who is studying the influence on clouds of
charged particles arriving from space.
The GPS record of the track of the balloon was used to derive wind
speed and direction to check the accuracy of weather forecast models.
We sent this data to a research scientist at Copenhagen University.
Malawi was an amazing experience – the scenery, the culture, the
friendly and welcoming nature of the people. But what I take away from
all our flights is a sense of the beauty and fragility of that thin
layer of gas that surrounds our planet.
If you are tempted to try this combination of high tech treasure hunt
and extreme photography it is important to know that the release of
weather balloons is governed by aviation regulations. UK residents
will find some handy guidance here.