Will bacteria-laden high-altitude balloons help us find life on Mars? Today’s eclipse should bring us closer to an answer.
image c/o NASA / Ames Research Center / Tristan Caro
The Eclipse Ballooning Project
Having learned of the Eclipse Ballooning Project set to take place today across the USA, a team at NASA couldn’t miss the opportunity to harness the high-flying project for their own experiments.
The Eclipse Ballooning Project invited students across the USA to aid in the launch of 50+ high-altitude balloons during today’s eclipse. Each balloon is equipped with its own Raspberry Pi and camera for data collection and live video-streaming.
High-altitude ballooning, or HAB as it’s often referred to, has become a popular activity within the Raspberry Pi community. The lightweight nature of the device allows for high ascent, and its Camera Module enables instant visual content collection.
image c/o Montana State University
The Eclipse Ballooning Project team, headed by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University, was contacted by Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA, who hoped to piggyback on the project to run tests on bacteria in the Mars-like conditions the balloons would encounter near space.
Into the stratosphere
At around -35 degrees Fahrenheit, with thinner air and harsher ultraviolet radiation, the conditions in the upper part of the earth’s stratosphere are comparable to those on the surface of Mars. And during the eclipse, the moon will block some UV rays, making the environment in our stratosphere even more similar to the martian one—ideal for NASA’s experiment.
So the students taking part in the Eclipse Ballooning Project could help the scientists out, NASA sent them some small metal tags.
These tags contain samples of a kind of bacterium known as Paenibacillus xerothermodurans. Upon their return to ground, the bacteria will be tested to see whether and how the high-altitude conditions affected them.
Life on Mars
Paenibacillus xerothermodurans is one of the most resilient bacterial species we know. The team at NASA wants to discover how the bacteria react to their flight in order to learn more about whether life on Mars could possibly exist. If the low temperature, UV rays, and air conditions cause the bacteria to mutate or indeed die, we can be pretty sure that the existence of living organisms on the surface of Mars is very unlikely.
What happens to the bacteria on the spacecraft and rovers we send to space? This experiment should provide some answers.
If you’re in the US, you might have a chance to witness the full solar eclipse today. And if you’re planning to watch, please make sure to take all precautionary measures. In a nutshell, don’t look directly at the sun. Not today, not ever.
If you’re in the UK, you can observe a partial eclipse, if the clouds decide to vanish. And again, take note of safety measures so you don’t damage your eyes.
You can also watch a live-stream of the eclipse via the NASA website.
This weekend saw my first anniversary at Raspberry Pi, and this blog marks my 100th post written for the company. It would have been easy to let one milestone or the other slide had they not come along hand in hand, begging for some sort of acknowledgement.
The day Liz decided to keep me
So here it is!
Joining the crew
Prior to my position in the Comms team as Social Media Editor, my employment history was largely made up of retail sales roles and, before that, bit parts in theatrical backstage crews. I never thought I would work for the Raspberry Pi Foundation, despite its firm position on my Top Five Awesome Places I’d Love to Work list. How could I work for a tech company when my knowledge of tech stretched as far as dismantling my Game Boy when I was a kid to see how the insides worked, or being the one friend everyone went to when their phone didn’t do what it was meant to do? I never thought about the other side of the Foundation coin, or how I could find my place within the hidden workings that turned the cogs that brought everything together.
12 Likes, 1 Comments – Alex J’rassic (@thealexjrassic) on Instagram: “… when suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a new job with a dream company. #raspberrypi #positive…”
A little luck, a well-written though humorous resumé, and a meeting with Liz and Helen later, I found myself the newest member of the growing team at Pi Towers.
Ticking items off the Bucket List
I thought it would be fun to point out some of the chances I’ve had over the last twelve months and explain how they fit within the world of Raspberry Pi. After all, we’re about more than just a $35 credit card-sized computer. We’re a charitable Foundation made up of some wonderful and exciting projects, people, and goals.
High altitude ballooning (HAB)
Skycademy offers educators in the UK the chance to come to Pi Towers Cambridge to learn how to plan a balloon launch, build a payload with onboard Raspberry Pi and Camera Module, and provide teachers with the skills needed to take their students on an adventure to near space, with photographic evidence to prove it.
332 Likes, 5 Comments – Raspberry Pi (@raspberrypifoundation) on Instagram: “All the screens you need to hunt balloons. . We have our landing point and are now rushing to…”
I was fortunate enough to join Sky Captain James, along with Dan Fisher, Dave Akerman, and Steve Randell on a test launch back in August last year. Testing out new kit that James had still been tinkering with that morning, we headed to a field in Elsworth, near Cambridge, and provided Facebook Live footage of the process from payload build to launch…to the moment when our balloon landed in an RAF shooting range some hours later.
“Can we have our balloon back, please, mister?”
Having enjoyed watching Blue Peter presenters send up a HAB when I was a child, I marked off the event on my bucket list with a bold tick, and I continue to show off the photographs from our Raspberry Pi as it reached near space.
13 Likes, 2 Comments – Alex J’rassic (@thealexjrassic) on Instagram: “Spend the day launching/chasing a high-altitude balloon. Look how high it went!!! #HAB #ballooning…”
You can find more information on Skycademy here, plus more detail about our test launch day in Dan’s blog post here.
Dear Raspberry Pi Friends…
My desk is slowly filling with stuff: notes, mementoes, and trinkets that find their way to me from members of the community, both established and new to the life of Pi. There are thank you notes, updates, and more from people I’ve chatted to online as they explore their way around the world of Pi.
By plugging myself into social media on a daily basis, I often find hidden treasures that go unnoticed due to the high volume of tags we receive on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. Kids jumping off chairs in delight as they complete their first Scratch project, newcomers to the Raspberry Pi shedding a tear as they make an LED blink on their kitchen table, and seasoned makers turning their hobby into something positive to aid others.
It’s wonderful to join in the excitement of people discovering a new skill and exploring the community of Raspberry Pi makers: I’ve been known to shed a tear as a result.
Meeting educators at Bett, chatting to teen makers at makerspaces, and sharing a cupcake or three at the birthday party have been incredible opportunities to get to know you all.
You’re all brilliant.
The Queens of Robots, both shoddy and otherwise
Last year we welcomed the Queen of Shoddy Robots, Simone Giertz to Pi Towers, where we chatted about making, charity, and space while wandering the colleges of Cambridge and hanging out with flat Tim Peake.
Ahhhh!!! I still can’t believe I got to hang out and make stuff at the @Raspberry_Pi towers!! Thank you thank you!!
Meeting such wonderful, exciting, and innovative YouTubers was a fantastic inspiration to work on my own projects and to try to do more to help others discover ways to connect with tech through their own interests.
Those ‘wow’ moments
Every Raspberry Pi project I see on a daily basis is awesome. The moment someone takes an idea and does something with it is, in my book, always worthy of awe and appreciation. Whether it be the aforementioned flashing LED, or sending Raspberry Pis to the International Space Station, if you have turned your idea into reality, I applaud you.
Some of my favourite projects over the last twelve months have not only made me say “Wow!”, they’ve also inspired me to want to do more with myself, my time, and my growing maker skill.
Great to meet @alexjrassic today and nerd out about @Raspberry_Pi and weather balloons and @Space_Station and all things #edtech ⛅🛰🤖
Projects such as Museum in a Box, a wonderful hands-on learning aid that brings the world to the hands of children across the globe, honestly made me tear up as I placed a miniaturised 3D-printed Virginia Woolf onto a wooden box and gasped as she started to speak to me.
Jill Ogle’s Let’s Robot project had me in awe as Twitch-controlled Pi robots tackled mazes, attempted to cut birthday cake, or swung to slap Jill in the face over webcam.
19 Likes, 1 Comments – Alex J’rassic (@thealexjrassic) on Instagram: “Made a Gif Cam using a Raspberry Pi, Pi camera, button and a couple LEDs. . When you press the…”
The next twelve months
Despite Eben jokingly firing me near-weekly across Twitter, or Philip giving me the ‘Dad glare’ when I pull wires and buttons out of a box under my desk to start yet another project, I don’t plan on going anywhere. Over the next twelve months, I hope to continue discovering awesome Pi builds, expanding on my own skills, and curating some wonderful projects for you via the Raspberry Pi blog, the Raspberry Pi Weekly newsletter, my submissions to The MagPi Magazine, and the occasional video interview or two.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining me on the ride!
Over the next three days, we have 30 educators arriving at Pi Towers to learn how to build, launch, and track a High Altitude Balloon (HAB). For the uninitiated, Skycademy 2016 is our second CPD event which provides experience of launching balloons to educators, showing them how this can be used for an inspiring, project-based learning experience.
This is my first year preparing for Skycademy, and it has been a steep but worthwhile learning curve. Launching a HAB combines aspects of maths, physics, computing, design and technology, and geography, and the sheer scope of the project means that it’s rare for school-age children to get these types of experiences. It’s great news, then, that Raspberry Pi have the in-house skills, ambition, and commitment to run such things, and train others to run them too.
Skycademy runs over three days: on the first day, delegates form teams and take part in several workshops aimed at planning and building their flight. Day Two sees them launch, track, and recover their payload. Day Three has them regroup to reflect and plan for the year ahead. The support doesn’t end there: our Skycademy graduates go on to take part in a year-long project that will see them launch flights at their own schools and organisations, helped by their own students.
Tracking tomorrow’s launch
If you’re interested in watching the launch tomorrow, you can follow our progress by searching for #skycademy on Twitter. You can also use the links below to track the progress of different teams. Today, you will begin to see their payloads appearing on the map, and tomorrow you’ll be able to follow the chase.
Our current launch plan is to set the balloons free slightly to the west of Cambridge around 10am, but we’ll be posting updates to Twitter.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be taking part in Skycademy today, don’t worry: we’ll be making lots of resources available in the near future for anyone to access and run their own flights. Alternatively, you can also visit Dave Akerman’s website for lots of HAB information and guides to get you started.
Welcome to Dan Fisher’s ‘Fun with HABs’
I recently found out what lay in store for our latest crop of educators when I took part in a test launch two weeks ago…
We made our way to the launch site at Elsworth, Cambridgeshire, feeling nervous and excited. We arrived at 09.30, as experts Dave Akerman and Steve Randall were already starting to assemble their kit. The hope was that we might actually be able to break the world record for the highest amateur unmanned balloon flight. Dave and Steve are continually leapfrogging each other for this title.
The payload Dave is making in the picture weighs about 250g and consists of a Raspberry Pi A+ connected to Pi-In-The-Sky (PITS) and LoRa boards. The lighter the payload, the higher the potential altitude. The boards broadcast packets of data back to earth, which can be decoded by our tracking equipment.
Surprisingly, the payload’s chassis assembly is hardly high-tech: a polystyrene capsule gaffer-taped to some nylon cord and balsa wood, to which the balloon and parachute are attached. For this launch, Dave and Steve used hydrogen rather than helium, as it enables you to achieve higher altitudes. Having no previous experience working with pure hydrogen, I had visions of some kind of disaster happening.
We weighed the payload to calculate how much hydrogen we would need to fill the balloon and ensure the correct ascent rate. Too much hydrogen means the balloon ascends too quickly and might burst early. Too little hydrogen results in a slow balloon which might not burst at all, and could float away and be lost.
After Dave filled the balloon with hydrogen, we attached the real payload (lots more gaffer tape) and we were ready for a good ol’ launch ‘n’ track. However, as is often the case, it didn’t exactly go to plan…
Home, home on the range
Picture the scene: two Raspberry Pi staffers are driving off-road through a military firing range. Behind the wheel is Dave Akerman, grinning broadly.
“It’s so much more interesting when they don’t just land in a ditch,” he says, speeding the SUV over another pothole.
We’ve tracked our high altitude balloon for two hours to an area of land in Thetford Forest, Norfolk which is used for live ammo practice: not somewhere you’d want to go without permission. Access is looking unlikely until we get a call from the nearby army base’s ops team: we’re in. We make our way past the firing range and into the woods.
After tracking as far as we can by car, we continue on foot until we spot the payload about ten metres up in a fir tree with very few branches. There’s no way of climbing up. Fortunately, Dave has come armed with the longest telescopic pole I’ve ever seen. It even has a hook on the business end for snagging the parachute’s cords. I act as a spotter as Dave manoeuvres the pole into position and tugs the payload free.
Giddy with the unexpected success of our recovery, we head back to the SUV and make for the exit, only to find we’ve been locked in. Scenarios where we’ve unwittingly become contestants in the next Hunger Games cross my mind. Armed only with long plastic poles, I worry we might be early casualties.
After feverish calls to the base again, they agree to come out and free us: a man in a MoD jacket dramatically smashes the lock with a hammer. We race back to Cambridge HQ, payload in hand and with a story to tell.
Liz: As some of you clever people have pointed out, the new Pi Zero with camera connector might have been designed with one person very much in mind. That person’s Dave “high-altitude ballooning” Akerman. We got one to him before they went on shelves so he could schedule a flight for launch day. Here’s Dave to tell you what happened (spoiler: he’s got another record for the highest amateur live-transmitted pictures). Thanks Dave!
As many reading this will know, I flew the new Pi Zero on the day it was announced, in order to test a prototype of our new PITS-Zero tracker board. I’d been pleading with Eben since I first saw a prototype of the original Pi Zero, that its low weight would be ideal for live-imaging HAB applications, if only it had a camera port. The camera is much the entire reason for using a Pi for HAB – if you don’t want pictures then a smaller/lighter/simpler AVR or PIC microcontroller will easily do the job (and with less battery power) – so I felt that the CSI-less Pi Zero was a missed opportunity. Eben agreed, and said he would try to make it happen.
So, when I received a sample Pi Zero with CSI port, I was keen to try it out. However launching an unreleased device, to possibly parachute down in front of a curious Pi fan, might not be the best idea in the world, so I had to wait. Fortunately the wind predictions were good for a balloon launch on the Pi Zero CSI launch day, and the flight went well albeit the burst was rather lower than predicted (balloons vary).
I had hoped to fly the new Sony camera for the Pi, but in testing the camera would become invisible to raspistill after about 2 hours and roughly 2-300 photos. 2 hours isn’t long enough for a regular flight, and mine was expected to take more than 3 hours just to ascend, so this wasn’t good. I searched the Pi forum and found that a couple of people using time-lapse photography had found the same issue, and as it was a new issue with no fix or workaround yet, I had to opt for the Omnivision camera instead. This of course gave me a reason to fly the same tracker again as soon as there was a solution for the Sony firmware issue; once there was I tested it, and planned my next flight.
Waiting For Baudot
"It's currently a problem of access to gigabits through punybaud"
I’ve written previously about LoRa, but the key points about these Long Range Radio Modules when compared to the old (first used from the air in 1922) RTTY system are:
Higher data rates
Longer range with the same rate/power
Can receive as well as transmit
Low host CPU requirements even for receiving
The higher data rates mean that we can send larger images more quickly (throughput is up to 56 times that of 300 baud RTTY), and the receiving capability makes it easy to have the payload respond to messages sent up from the ground. For this flight, those messages are used to request the tracker to re-send any missing packets (ones that the receiving stations didn’t hear), thus reducing the number of annoying missing image sections down to about zero. To give you an idea of the improvement, the following single large picture was sent in about a quarter of the time taken by the inset picture (from my first Pi flight, and at the same pixel scale):
LCARS Chase Car Computer
For this flight, I tried out my new chase-car computer. This has a Pi B V2, Pi touchscreen, LoRa module, GPS receiver and WLAN (to connect to a MiFi in the chase car). The user interface mimics the Star Trek LCARS panels, and was written in Python with PyQt. It receives telemetry both locally (LoRa, or RTTY via a separate PC) and also from the central UKHAS server if connected via GSM.
As per the previous Pi Zero flight, this was under a 1600g balloon filled with hydrogen. Predicted burst altitude was 42km, and I hoped that this time it might achieve that! The payload was the same as last time:
except of course for the new Sony camera (manually focused for infinity, but not beyond) and a new set of batteries.
On the launch day the weather was overcast but forecast to improve a little, so I decided to wait for a gap in the clouds. When that came, the wind did too (that wasn’t forecast!), which made filling the balloon interesting.
No, my head hasn’t turned into a giant clove of garlic.
Fortunately, the wind did drop for launch, and the balloon ascended towards the gap I’d mentioned in the clouds:
The LoRa system worked well (especially once I remembered to enable the “missing packet re-send” software!), with the new camera acquitting itself well. I used ImageMagick onboard to apply some gamma to the images (to replace contrast lost in the atmosphere) and to provide a telemetry overlay, including this one, which I believe is the highest image sent down live from an amateur balloon.
Burst was a few metres later, comfortably beating my previous highest live-image flight.
And this was the last image it sent. I guessed why. Remember the camera stuck to the outside? My guess was that after burst – when the payload suddenly finds itself without support – the line up to the balloon found its way behind the camera which it then removed as the balloon remnants pulled on it. So, I can’t show you any images from the descent, but I can show you this shot of the Severn Estuary (processed to improve contrast) from the ascent:
In the chase car, I stopped at a point with a good view towards the landing area, so I could get the best (lowest) last position I could. With the payload transmitting both LoRa and RTTY, I had my LCARS Pi receiving the former, and a Yaesu 817 with laptop PC receiving the latter. With no images, the LoRa side dropped to sending telemetry only, which was handy as I was able to receive a lot of packets as the balloon descended. Overall LoRa seemed to be much more reliable from the car than RTTY did, despite the much higher data rate, and I now would be quite happy to chase a balloon transmitting high bandwidth LoRa and nothing else.
With the final position logged, I carefully tapped that into the car sat nav and then drove off to get the payload back. 10 minutes later I remembered that I’d coded exactly that function into my LCARS program! 2 screen-taps later, I had on-screen navigation (via Navit); I would also have had voice navigation but I hadn’t connected a speaker yet.
Both Navit and the car sat nav took me to a hill with the payload about 300 metres away. I waited for another HABber to arrive – his first time chasing – and meantime I updated the other enthusiasts online, and took some photographs of the scenery; Shropshire is very pretty.
Once Andy arrived, we walked down to the payload, watched (as often the case) by the local populace:
Ewe looking at me?
As expected, the camera was missing, so if anyone wants a free Sony Pi camera, I can give you a 5-mile radius area to search.
You don’t need CSI to see what went wrong here …
A lot of the balloon was still attached, which helps to explain how the camera was forcibly removed:
So, a nice flight and recovery. The Sony camera worked well; 868 LoRa worked well; the LCARS chase car tracker worked well. Next time, more duct tape!
Before humans took to the skies in metal tubes powered by jet engines, there was a gentler mode of transport that we used to conquer the skies: the humble balloon.
The Montgolfier brothers’ first human-crewed balloon takes off at the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, on November 21, 1783
After the success of last year’s launches, we are giving you another opportunity to blaze a trail across the sky and become a pioneer of aviation with the return of Skycademy, our High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) training programme.
Skycademy is a FREE, two-and-a-half day CPD event that provides experience of HABing to UK-based educators, demonstrating how it can be used as an engaging teaching tool. We’ll help you take ballooning to a whole new level (literally), where the hot air of Victorian era ballooning is replaced with space-age Helium to send your balloon soaring into the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 35 km. Fun fact: that’s around three times the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747!
Attached to the HAB is the payload consisting of a Pi-In-The-Sky GPS tracker board (developed by the wonderful Dave Akerman and Anthony Stirk), and a camera module, both controlled by a Raspberry Pi. You will use these elements to capture the balloon’s epic voyage and collect data to use back in your classroom.
Read more about last year’s adventures, mishaps, and balloons that were lost somewhere over the North Sea here.
See the earth from a whole new perspective.
At this point you might be thinking: “That sounds pretty cool, but I’m new to ballooning and nervous about launching into our airspace. Do we just get the kit and roll with it or do we get training?”
EnterSkycademy. Thirty lucky attendees will be guided through the steps to running a launch and, weather permitting, get hands-on experience of a real flight, so you’ll have all the experience you need before taking it back to the classroom. The event is free to attend and will be held from 8–10 August 2016. While the course is based in Cambridge, launch day will require you to travel to the launch site and then drive to recover your payload.
Day 1: Planning and workshop sessions on all aspects of HAB flights.
Day 2: Each team launches their payload, tracks, follows and recovers it.
Day 3: Teams gather together for plenary morning.
A team prepares their HAB for launch.
Sharing the fun
Attendees are supported throughout the course by experienced HAB enthusiasts and the Raspberry Pi Education Team. However, the 2.5 days of training is only the start of a longer process where educators are expected to run launches at their own schools. Skycademy attendees will therefore receive the support and equipment needed to achieve this as part of a twelve-month programme. The ultimate aim is to get young people excited and inspired by the project, and about all the STEM skills around it. A great example of this came from a successful launch by Queen Margaret’s School for Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival 2015:
As part of WOW 2016, a girls school will use weather balloons to send a small payload into near space, at altitudes of around 30km, where atmospheric temperature drops to -50C. The satellite carries a Raspberry Pi computer transmitting images of the WOW hash tag and the curvature of our planet.
Launch Day Butterflies
Seeing your HAB ascend majestically into the sky is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Skycademy graduate Sue Gray knows this feeling all too well after she launched at Elsworth, Cambridgeshire in May 2016:
“It was quite scary letting it go! Once it was let loose, there was no turning back. If anything had been forgotten, it would stay that way! The balloon and payload sailed off into the bright blue sky and grew smaller and smaller as it flew away. A fantastic sight indeed.
Then it was time to pack up the launch box, wish the other teams good luck and set off on the chase. A quick phone call to Mr Verma confirmed that he was receiving the telemetry from the payload and could see it moving across the map.
We got to Bourne a little ahead of the payload but…something was wrong. It seemed to be hanging in the air just to the east of Peterborough and we hadn’t received any telemetry for over twenty minutes. We stopped to take stock (and grab some food and drinks), Mr Verma confirmed that he too was not seeing any movement although he’d seen the balloon change to a parachute on the tracker – indicating a burst!”
After tracking the payload to a general area and searching the surrounding farmland, the team had to give up the search. As luck would have it, someone continued searching on their behalf and tracked it down!
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