The MSOE Amateur Radio Club launched its first ever high-altitude balloon into near-space, complete with a small radio transmitter board weighing only half an ounce on a mylar weather balloon. Through GPS, the solar powered transmitter board records the location, speed and altitude of the balloon. It also has a temperature sensor on board to investigate how temperature varies in the upper atmosphere. The balloon takes all the data it collects and transmits it out using methods students use in Amateur Radio Club.

Due to worldwide popularity of amateur radio, there are receiving stations around the globe run by radio amateurs. The receiving stations pick up the balloon’s signal, decode the information and upload it to the internet. The information is displayed as a Google Map that shows an icon representing the balloon, which can be watched in real time.

The goal of the launch is for the balloon to circumnavigate the earth and demonstrate the diverse uses for amateur radio. To reach this goal, the team required a system that was lightweight and low power. The team purchased a pre-soldered transmitter designed by Bill Brown, a NASA engineer and amateur radio enthusiast. This enabled them to experiment with the effect of extreme altitude on radio signals—an effect known as propagation—and to get an introduction into this unique use for radio technology.

The club named the balloon “Magellan-105” because Ferdinand Magellan navigated around the Earth and MSOE Amateur Radio Club is 105 years old this year, making it MSOE’s oldest club.

Since launching on Dec. 6, the balloon has traveled across Lake Michigan, the entire east coast of the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean and as of Dec. 13., is over Turkey.

“We hope our balloon travels around the world over the course of a few weeks,” said Ben Jacobs, president of MSOE Amateur Radio Club. “There is no way to control where the balloon goes, but we can predict its path using meteorological data provided by the National Oceanic and Aerospace Administration. It hovers in the jet stream at an altitude of around 30,000 feet and goes wherever the wind takes it.”

The most challenging aspect of the launch was perfecting the amount of helium in the balloon. If the balloon had too little air it wouldn’t be able to reach the jet stream, and if it had too much air it would climb too high and pop. They needed exactly three grams of free lift, meaning the balloon should just hang in the air when the payload and a three-gram weight are attached.

“We seemed to have gotten it exactly right, because our altitude remained relatively constant at 30,000 feet for days!”

As of Dec. 13, the balloon has reached its target altitude and has stopped ascending. The balloon will eventually fail and fall back to Earth, likely due to stress from high speed winds or the line connecting the balloon to the transmitter board will snap. Once it falls, there is contact information written directly on the transmitter board so if someone finds the payload, they can contact the club.

“A big part of Amateur Radio is good will towards people from different places and backgrounds, so part of this experiment has been to see just how widespread our hobby is by learning about the countries our balloon transmissions are picked up in,” said Jacobs.

After the great success, the club hopes to do a similar launch next year. There are currently 12 active student members ranging from freshmen to graduates in varying programs who attend weekly meetings, plus additional members who come periodically. Dr. Steve Holland, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, and Rich Phillips, Mechanical Engineering Department, serve as faculty advisor and second advisor respectively. MSOE community members including professors emeriti, staff and alumni routinely join the meetings as well. If you’re interested in joining, the club meets every Friday from noon to 1 p.m. in MLH 1203.