How Not To Send a Helium Balloon to Near Space

I tried to send a helium balloon into near space. I fucked up, destroyed 2000€ worth of company property and ended up violating Russian air space.

There it lies

The story begins with me trying to imagine a script for a Kickstarter video. Our company had invented this awesome sensor doohikey and I figured the most awesome thing to do would be to send it to space! A shot of our device, Thingsee One floating in space with the earth in the background: "Hello, universe!"

Yeah. That didn't happen.

We were on a very tight schedule. We had 2 weeks to get everything in order: The script, production company, all required materials. Sadly, none of the equipment I had ordered from Amazon early on was coming in on time. Our own device had GPS with GSM data but there is no cellular connectivity at 100 000 feet, so I NEEDED to have a secondary GPS device to transmit the coordinates back to us using satellites.

On the day of the planned video shoot we were still missing some important equipment. The weather was perfect that day, but we had to postpone the launch. We just shot some B-roll footage for our Kickstarter video with the helium balloon attached to a string. Boring day, but awesome footage.

Time was running out at this point - the materials were about to be sent for editing & post production. I was still waiting for the customs to release the last of our equipment. I had only 2 days left to get the near space footage.

I scrambled all the equipment together the night before the release. Around 2000 € worth of equipment packed into a styrofoam box, strapped into a parachute, waiting to be attached to a helium ball. The day of the scheduled shoot came, but the package was still to arrive from the customs. At around 1PM I finally got it, but because of the early dusk in Finland this time of the year we decided to postpone the shoot to the next day.

At 9AM we started driving towards our launch site. This was our last chance. I had checked rudimentary wind information the night before. In the car I dialled a friend at the Finnish Air Force to get proper wind informaton at different altitudes. Bad news. Instead of blowing towards the North, the Finnish Lapland, it was mostly blowing East, towards Russia, which is no more than 185 kilometers away.

I jotted down the wind speeds on my phone and did some fast calculations in my head. If the balloon rose and fell at a steady 5 meters per second, it wouldn't make it to Russia, it would only travel about 140 kilometers.

I had chosen the launch site based on the belief that the wind would blow towards north. We were driving east trying to make sure the balloon wouldn't end up in the Gulf of Bothnia but with the wind also blowing east we were now going the wrong way. We were 170 kilometers away from the Russian border and we needed to launch, then and there.

The conditions on the ground were terrible: the wind was blowing at around 30 knots towards north, and filling up car-sized helium balloon in that wind and at -10° C is no easy task. My little helper, J-M, grabbed the balloon into his 190cm bear hug and kept it in place. We finally got it filled after 20 minutes of struggling, added some cable ties to seal the balloon and attached the wires from our payload. I turned on the warning lights, the GPS devices and the GoPro. The wind made the balloon fly horizontally on its 5 meter rope as I held on to the payload. When I let go the balloon disappeared into the fog in a few seconds.

We got a signal from the GPS over GSM every few seconds if the balloon was flying over a populated area and satellites provided us with secondary information every 5 minutes. Everything looked good at first. The ball started flying north 50 km/h. After a few minutes and after rising above 1 kilometer, the balloon started traveling towards east. It rose steadily, but a bit slower than I had hoped, at around 3 m/s. It kept accelerating slowly, 60km/h at 5km. 80km/h at 8km. 140km/h at 10km.

I was still optimistic, though. Surely it wouldn't fly to Russia. It'll just rise above the strong winds soon, at about 15km, and then we'll be A-OK!

It never happened. The balloon stayed at 10 km, flying east at 140km/h. Fuck. Something must have gone wrong. Did I nick it when tying the cable ties? Or had it expanded and sprung a leak? At around 1PM it was clear it was going to Russia, with only 40 km away from the border, 16 minutes at 140 km. It suddenly came to me: This isn't a good time violating Russian air space. This REALLY isn't a good time. And there it went. With 2000 € of company property and a one of six prototypes of our sensor device.

Last leg

I had a second epiphany: I hadn't really asked anyone for a permission to use the prototype!

After crossing the border the balloon started descending. It curved around, almost coming back towards Finland, and landed about 30 km from the border. There it stayed, in the middle of nowhere, sending its GPS info over satellite for a few days.

The Kickstarter started two weeks ago, without any footage from near space. I'm also waiting for a call from the authorities about the air space violation. Captain Hindsight could now point out that all my calculations were wrong. The average wind speed was definitely a lot more 30 knots. I converted the knots into kilometers using the wrong multiplier, and the balloon rose slower than what I hoped. We never had a chance to begin with.