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LVL1 Amateur Balloon Distance Record Breaking Proposal

By Dan Bowen

The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and landing on foreign soil, with an amateur small balloon remains to be achieved. A group came extremely close 3 years ago, within 300 miles of the coast of Europe, but splashed down in the ocean. They proved that it can be done - and they have posted all their data and knowledge online for others to build on. Are we the ones who will do it?

I was the leader of the most successful amateur balloon series to date - the Spirit of Knoxville, which was the closest so far to grabbing the flag of landing in Europe. We will be able to save a large amount of time by using the lessons learned from the prior group. It took them 3 years. I think we can do it in 6 months.

There is another team from Toronto trying to do the same this winter - so keep in mind that we'll be in a race. Since we're tech-oriented here, I'll put the background info at the end, and get right to the challenges.

The challenges are many

  • Stopping the climb - A special vented polyethylene plastic balloon design must be used, there's a small company who has the equipment to make them custom for the trans-atlantic crossing. making them is difficult to get right, but not impossible.
  • The law - US FAA law requires imposes many limitations, but the most challenging one is this - two 6 lb containers are the maximum weight and distribution you can carry under the balloon.
  • Solar heating - The sun turns a balloon into a greenhouse, making it into a partial hot-air balloon. More lift in the daytime, lots less in the night. Not good if you're trying to stay at a certain altitude
  • Heaving ballast - much weight must be jettisoned at EVERY sunset to stay at the same altitude. The cold also affects the choice of ballast release mechanism
  • Telemetry - 2000 miles from land isn't an easy place to get data from, and even harder to get commands from the ground to the balloon.
  • Temperature - it's a cool -40C in the daytime, and a chilly -70C at night. Nothing works like you'd expect it to when that cold. You must cryotest everything before flying
  • Power - you've got to carry a lot of battery power with you - and batteries that can operate super cold are few and far between Energizer e2 lithium are likely candidates. The weight of solar panels and aiming mechanics usually outweigh the benefit.
  • Software - Software needs to manage ballast, telemetry, and also make decisions based on latitude and longitude boundaries - some countries don't allow certain radio transmissions from balloons.
  • Electronics hardware - cheap, lightweight, low power, small size
  • GPS - must be verified to work at high altitudes - many gps models have an artificial altitude threshold they will stop working above.
  • Cost - typically each flight attempt will cost $400-$500
  • Quantity - Many (4 to 8) attempts will have to be made before the weather and our luck coincide, and nearly every flight that fails will never be recovered - don't expect to re-use any hardware.
  • Weather - the only way to cross the ocean is to ride the Jet Stream. Special balloon flight forecasting software must be set up to warn us when the Jet Stream is travelling from here to the other side of the pond. This will only happen about 8 times during the whole year.

High Altitude Balloons in general

High altitude weather balloons are large latex or plastic balloons that carry instruments and experiments into the upper atmosphere. A typical simple balloon will be 4 feet in diameter, white latex, and carry 2lbs of payload. It will climb at 1000 feet per minute, swelling as the air pressure decreases. It will burst when it reaches approximately 10 feet in diameter, usually around 70,000 ft altitude. The tattered remains of the balloon, and the payload, then descend on a parachute to the ground, usually dozens of miles from the point of launch. These are commonly executed and recovered by amateur radio operators and others using simple GPS location transmitters.

What is Long Duration Balloon Flight?

Balloon flights are considered "long duration" when they do not follow the traditional rise-until-you-pop flight path, but instead they level off, and float at a particular altitude. Large NASA "LDB" flight may float anywhere from 1 week to 90 days at their float altitude. However, those balloons require a special condition found only at the polar regions of the planet to accomplish this ultra-long duration flight - continuous sunlight. NASA balloons that have done this are large- extremely large - usually the size of an entire football stadium when inflated. Mere amateurs cannot hope to construct balloons of this scale. However, what has been discovered recently by amateurs, is that LDB flight is possible with small zero-pressure balloons. Perhaps even weeks if one could get to the polar region with an amateur balloon, but with significant work and planning, even at our Kentucky latitude, several days flight should be possible.

The Jet Stream is the way

The Jet Stream is a river of high speed air, that is about 100 miles wide, and about 10,000 ft thick, between 30,000 and 40,000 ft altitude. It travels usually at speeds of 100MPH to 200MPH. If you put a balloon into this raging river, and you hold your altitude, it will move as fast as the stream - up to 200MPH. You could make it from here to Europe in just 24 hours.

History of Amateur LDB

A handful of attempts have been made, but few successes have been made. Only 6 have ever gone more than 1000 miles.

LDB Flights of Note

Reference: arhab.org

  • 2004 1200mi Hi-Ball 2 Latex balloon by Bill Brown, breaks 1000 mile distance for first time
  • 2005 1400mi Hi-Ball 6 Latex balloon by Bill Brown
  • 2008 3400mi SNOX-IV GW ZP ~900 cu ft Spirit of Knoxville 4
  • 2009 2000mi PBH-9 Raven ZP Cornell University Class Project

UTARC / Spirit of Knoxville flights

UTARC/SNOX launched 20 flights over three years specifically for the purpose of testing and developing the ability to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Much knowledge and experimental data was gained, which was made freely available for other citizen scientists to build on, under the CC license.

Currently Known Trans-Atlantic Competitors

Atlantic HALO

A collaboration between the UKHAS (United Kingdom High Altitude Society) and a few Canadian individuals in Ontario, Canada. This group appears to be farthest advanced in telemetry systems testing, and are currently testing balloon envelopes, ballast systems, and balloon valves on short flights in Europe. They appear to be most likely to eventually make a good flight, but they are proceeding very slowly.

Bill Brown

Bill Brown is a highly capable individual developing an extremely versatile, cheap, multi-mode HF telemetry transmitter, frequently flying them on short test flights in Huntsville, Alabama. Bill doesn't have a support team, so his progress is slow. He owns one GW ZP 900 cu ft balloon. He is very good at intuiting what needs to be done to make balloons do his bidding, so his early full size attempts may make formidable progress. He has no formal tracking network though, he is using the UKHAS tracking system currently.

Why is amateur LDB unconquered?

The reason for the dearth of LDB flight attempts, and the high failure rate of those attempted, is that success requires the simultaneous perfection of many radically different skills and technologies.


The Spirit of Knoxville, Bill Brown, and Atlantic HALO groups paid Mark Caviezel about $200 for each trans-atlantic zero pressure balloon. Cornell university paid about $10,000 for a similar balloon from Raven/Aerostar.

For the Spirit of Knoxville flights the home-made electronics came to about $60 including GPS. Helium is about $100 for a single T-Tank. The rest of the materials were probably about $40 of payload box and parts to drop ballast. This brought the SNOX flights to about $400 per flight.

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