Winter 2008 Issue

Up in the Air

Transatlantic Balloon Race

By Bill Brown, WB8ELK

Photo 1. The HF PSK-31 and VHF APRS ANSR long-duration
payload PC board. (Photo by Michael Gray, KD7LMO)

Part of the fun and challenge of Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning (ARHAB) is to push the envelope towards new achievements. Ralph Wallio, WØRPK, maintains an ARHAB Flight Records page on his website (www.arhab.org) that documents some of these achievements. Each year a contest is held with categories such as Highest Altitude, Longest Flight Time, Greatest Flight Distance, Greatest Telemetry Reception Range (VHF/ UHF), Greatest Telemetry Reception Range (HF), and Greatest Two-Way QSO via balloon transponder or repeater.

Several balloon groups have been pushing towards the ultimate goal of having a balloon repeater/transponder that flies for several days at high altitude. Imagine having the equivalent of an AMSAT satellite that floats slowly across the U.S. (or around the world) for hours or days. The great advantage of a BalloonSat is that due to its slow speed relative to an AMSAT bird and its closer proximity to Earth, anyone with a modest amateur radio station can easily work through the balloon relay without worrying about slinging antennas rapidly across the sky, and much lower power is necessary to make a contact. Some of the two-way QSOs that were made via a VHF/UHF balloon repeater have been over 700 miles (a 777-mile DX QSO is the record so far, set by N8DEZ/6 and N5QO via the ANSR balloon relay from Phoenix, Arizona).


The Contenders

One of the ultimate goals, and also the toughest to achieve, has been to lob a balloon payload clear across the Atlantic Ocean. The unmanned balloon equivalent of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic solo flight, a handful of balloon groups have taken up the challenge and the race is on!

It turns out that the best time of year to achieve a transatlantic flight is during the winter months. The jet stream can exceed 170 knots at this time of year, and the trend is for a flight that goes east at a high speed. Some days the winds are so strong that a balloon could make the transit in less than 48 hours.

So far four groups have thrown their hats in the ring, and there could be a few more as the competition heats up. In alphabetical order, here are the current contenders:

ANSR

The Arizona Near Space Research (ANSR) group (www.ansr.org) plans to fly a custom-built payload that includes APRS as well as PSK-31 telemetry (see photo 1). Using a circuit designed and built by Michael Gray, KD7LMO, this multi-band HF PSK-31 telemetry transmitter can be heard for thousands of miles, allowing anyone with a modest HF PSK-31 station to follow the flight’s progress. (Michael’s innovative circuit designs can be viewed at: <www.kd7lmo.net>.)

In addition to its extensive student experiment program using conventional latex balloons, ANSR has achieved some remarkable long-duration flights using a special plastic balloon designed and supplied by Mark Caviezel of Global Western. The group has made several multi-day flights so far, and the longest mission has been 775 miles downrange. If ANSR makes it across the Atlantic, it will indeed be quite an achievement, since the group has the disadvantage of having to trek across most of the continental U.S. before reaching the Atlantic seaboard.
 

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