Horus 14 – Tux in (near) Space

A few day ago my son William and I helped out with the launch of Horus 14 – a high altitude balloon that made it to the edge of space. These near space balloons reach an altitude of 30-40km, about 3 times the altitude of regular jet aircraft. At that height the horizon is a few 100km, the sky is black and the curvature of the Earth is very obvious. Air pressure is about 5% of ground level and it’s -50C.

This photo says it all. It is an incredible testimony to what Ham Radio, Linux, open source, and open hardware can do. Tux in Space. Click for larger image and your new desktop background. The video is even better, I still can’t believe it. The space-penguin who made the trip was auctioned off at linux.conf.au 2011 to help out with Queensland flood relief.

Tux is about 25km high, facing north west. He is roughly over the town of Murray Bridge. We are looking along a line from the A on this map through Adelaide. The body of water behind him is Spencer Gulf and just behind that Yorke Peninsula and St Vincent’s Gulf. I think the Murray River is visible in the lower right hand side of the image.

We started out visiting a lovely country property near Mt Barker, in the Adelaide Hills for the launch.

Here is Joel filling the balloon while Mark prepares the VHF payload:

The balloon was filled with Helium, and the payloads attached. I tugged on the string and the balloon was really pulling hard. Much more lift than I had imagined. Here we are ready for launch, you really do need two hands to keep this thing down:

We launched and up it went. Within minutes it was out of site, VHF and UHF transponders bleeping away. Then the chase was on. We spent the next 2 hours driving in the country, trying to get close to the predicted landing position. We had two chase vehicles so we sent one North and one South to bracket the landing area. At one stage the balloon was scooting along at 180 km/hr. After about 90 minutes the balloon popped at 30,200m. There is an Apollo-esque moment in the flight when you lose telemetry as the balloon breaks and Horus spins wildly during “re-entry”. As we drove directly underneath we also lost signal for a while, swapping between UHF and VHF to get the best signal. Here is the view from my fossil-fuel-to-greenhouse-gas-converter as we zoom along the back roads of South Australia:

Mark was manning the geek-stuff in our car, laptop with 3G Internet connection, VHF and UHF radios, inverters, cables everywhere:

I was quite amazed that 100mW or less is adequate for good telemetry over paths of up to 100km. Must do the link budget calculations some time. Line of Site is of course excellent.

Some amazing software actually predicts the flight path based on altitudes and winds. In this case the balloon landed within a few km of the predicted point. We just missed seeing it land, but the guys in the other car saw it land about 1km from the road. We trudged through some arid and bramble covered land and recovered the balloon.

Here is the track of Horus 14 (Click for larger image):

Here is Terry (the man behind Project Horus) clutching the most important part of our payload – Tux and the HD camera that recorded the flight:

This adventure makes me wonder if we are in some sort of geeky golden age. We used Ham radio, 3G Internet, laptops, miniature HD cameras, Linux, GPS, Arduinos, tons of open software, cars, and a weather balloon. Bringing it all together means that for a few $100/flight anyone can put something virtually into space.