High Altitude Ballooning – not as difficult as you might think

For several years, Jamie Costello, assistant headteacher and physics teacher at Sutton Grammar School, ran APEX - a backcronym for Altitude Photography Experiment, launching High Altitude Balloons (HABs) with different teams of students. He explains why this was such a career high.

High Altitude Ballooning – not as difficult as you might think

“Dawn, looking east over the North Sea” - taken by one of Sutton Grammar School’s HAB missions

Taking pictures from the edge of space is, literally, out of this world, but also great fun. My advice: “dare mighty things” and let me help you get started.

The HAB community has grown enormously since I first launched in 2008 and there is plenty of support available. Start with the UK High Altitude Society (UKHAS) but other experts are easy to find and super helpful - it is amazing how much goodwill there is towards physics teachers and their students.

Starting in September, you could plan for a launch in late spring/early summer. First, assemble a team. The abilities of the group will determine how much teacher involvement will be needed - and time commitment is required - but rest assured, your efforts will be rewarded.

Safety always comes first: appoint a student H&S officer. Helium canisters, civil aviation guidelines for HABs and possible high voltage circuit boards all require specialist supervision and your input. You’ll need a photographer, a GPS tracker, a coder, telemetry lead, balloon and parachute coordinator, a casing specialist and a finance officer. You may also wish to appoint a CEO and PR rep. Make your team feel important and invite the headteacher to the odd meeting.

Dedicated A-level pupils with a background in programming and electronics may simply get on with it but buy a ready-made kit for a GCSE group. The HAB community will often track your balloon for you.

When you launch, make a weekend of it. Go out for a meal the day before, and soak up the excitement. If you have never seen a balloon launch before, it’s something you’ll never forget. And the fun doesn’t end there. With a GPS tracker and other data, you can discuss your achievements with your classes back at school: distance/time graphs, temperature gradients, radiation levels, even the humidity of the stratosphere. There’ll will be so much physics to discuss... I suspect you’ll want to launch again.

The highs and lows of HABing

This image was taken in April 2011. I was lucky to be working with an exceptional group of students who were very keen to photograph sunrise and so we had set off in the middle of the night to launch from Cambridge.

During this launch, the team had a problem with the GPS system just before lift-off. The problem was solved just in time, but, in the rush, everyone forgot to calculate a fresh landing site prediction. Unfortunately, the weather had changed from the planned launch time and the new predicted landing site was in the North Sea. This was one of the few launches not to have a cutdown facility for emergencies.

So, the balloon was off, and all we could do was follow its doom. The pupils tracked the device until it went below the horizon, then it was lost.

When this happens, there’s always hope. All HAB kits are purposefully covered in contact details for such eventualities. Weeks later I received an email from a very helpful man in Holland. He had found the payload and was very pleased to send it back. The photo memory card was a bit messy but the pictures were recoverable. I still have the payload case at school as a memento.

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