Flight #86: NITELITE Test 1

Our first flight for 2016 was on Saturday, April 23rd.  It was an evening flight and the first test for our NITELITE project.  For those of you who don’t know, NITELITE is the precursor mission to our more comprehensive and integrated NITESat (Nighttime Imaging & Tracking Experiment Satellite) mission to measure and characterize light pollution over the Midwestern United States from orbit, with special focus on Chicago and its environs (though we may also try to take data during passes of opportunity over other regions, including possibly outside the U.S., depending on our orbit and some other factors, such as our ability to capture data on demand).  NITELITE is our first-round effort to design and test an imaging system that, though it will not be the exact same imaging system we expect to use on the satellite, will be comparable in terms of operation and specs, such as the camera control system and data handling.

The primary goals of this first test flight were:

(If you want to know more detail about the systems we were testing, click the corresponding link above to jump ahead.)

We met at the Adler at 4 PM, loaded up all the flight gear (except the 30-foot pole – a crucial, but not fatal, oversight, which we are not likely to repeat any time in the near future).  We pulled out of the Adler parking lot a full 2 minutes ahead of schedule at 4:58.  A great start to a great evening!



Balloon Setup

Setting Up Balloon

Per our usual, we all headed for Koerner Aviation airport in Kankakee, IL (about an hour’s drive), to set up for launch.  Not per our usual, we set up the balloon outside the hangar, because the hangar was too full of airplanes.  (Cool!)  No problem, the winds were nice and light, so everything went smoothly.

While at Koerner, Lou and Colton confirmed an open comm channel for them to use, then they headed to Kankakee Community College to set up the directional antenna on the roof for the live video transmission test.

We launched the balloon at about 7:30 PM, right on schedule, then piled into our vehicles (1 van + 2 cars) and began the chase.  Andrew and his students, who were in the trailing car, ran into a bit of a snag, due to one of the car’s headlights being out (a whole story unto itself), but they not only managed to catch up with the rest of us, they were also the first to spot the payload after it landed — in a tree.  (Here’s where the 30-foot pole would have come in handy.  But, to quote Ken, who is (1) Polish and (2) working on getting his tree climber certification, “Who needs a 30-foot pole when you have a Pole who can climb 30 feet!”)  Thanks to Ken, we were able to retrieve the payload without incident.

To our great delight, all three of the main systems we were testing gave some good results.  So, our first NITELITE test flight was a rousing success!  We are looking forward to our next NITELITE test flight, which will be another evening flight.  Stay tuned!


NITELITE Test Imaging System

The initial test imaging system that we flew on April 23rd consisted of a hacked Canon SX130 IS camera and an Arduino.  The camera used a CHDK script that we controlled with a simple on-off switch through the USB.  For our next NITELITE test flight, which is scheduled for May 28th, we will try to use a Raspberry Pi, instead of the Arduino.


Far Horizons On-Board Computer (OBC)



The OBC is based on an Arduino Due. It is connected to our IMU and Copernicus II GPS systems via standard two-wire serial ports. It receives GPS sentences every 4 seconds and IMU information at a 5 Hz rate.

The OBC is programmed very simply, with an inner loop that processes GPS and IMU serial port bytes into an internal sentence buffer. When the sentence buffer is complete, as signaled by a flag byte, the sentence is parsed and the most recent “state” (GPS and IMU) information is accordingly updated and time-stamped with the current internal clock. Every 5 seconds the state information is written to a log file on an SD card. Every 300 seconds a trigger sentence is written to the camera subsystem via a third serial port. This also triggers a write out of the camera sentence and state information to the log file. The whole system is powered by two lithium 9 volt batteries and installed in a “standard” tray.


Live Video Transmission System (LVTS)

Our LVTS consists of a GoPro camera, a simple transmitter, a directional antenna, a receiver, a signal converter, and a video streaming device. (And, of course, YouTube.)

On the balloon payload: The GoPro camera puts out an analog TV signal, which is fed into a miniature (2.5-Watt) analog TV transmitter. The transmitter’s antenna broadcasts video continuously on a single channel @ 1258 MHz, which is an amateur radio band (i.e., Amateur Television or “ATV”).

On the ground: A special highly directional antenna (similar to the old Yagi TV antennas) is mounted on a tripod. The antenna is connected to a small TV receiver that’s designed for the specific frequency of the transmitter’s signal (channel). The receiver reproduces the transmitter’s analog TV signal and feeds it into a converter, which converts it to the modern HDMI digital format (important for streaming). The signal is then sent to a video streaming device, which converts the signal into an internet data stream that goes directly live to YouTube. (We use a popular brand of video streaming device that’s commonly used by gamers to record or live stream their gaming prowess, so their fans can watch and admire.) Though not a required component of the LVTS, an HDMI monitor can also be connected, so the folks on the ground can see what the GoPro is seeing.

The antenna must be pointed with reasonable accuracy toward the signal source (i.e., the transmitter on the balloon). Since it has no automatic controls to point it at the balloon, the antenna must be manually aimed by looking at the balloon track on and estimating in what direction and at what angle upward to point the antenna, so that it is aimed toward the balloon (basically, an educated guess).

Directional Antenna

Directional Antenna

For our April 23rd flight, Lou and Colton set up the antenna on a rooftop at Kankakee Community College, with enthusiastic assistance from staff at the College, coordinated by Rob Kenney. The College is roughly 5 miles away from Koerner Aviation airport, where we launch our balloons.  They had their hands full with the setup and manual pointing of the antenna, so they didn’t get a chance to take photos of their setup, but here’s an earlier pic of the antenna.

The altitude and angle of the balloon were changing rapidly during the flight while the balloon was within relatively close range of the antenna, so it was a challenge to point the antenna during that part of the balloon track. However, after the balloon got further away, the flight path was less variable and the angle from the antenna to the balloon stayed almost constant, so it didn’t require as much adjustment to keep the antenna pointed. There seemed to be some interference, though, possibly from the local Wi-Fi at the College, and/or from the Greater Kankakee Airport, which was nearby and has quite a bit of high-powered radio, including radar, which could interfere with reception. The signal later faded out when the balloon reached ~50,000 feet altitude (~10 miles up) and ~30 miles away.

Overall, we were able to get some good footage, but unfortunately after the live stream finished the video was not archived on YouTube. We’ll try to rectify that next time, in addition to hopefully making some other improvements.




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Flight #85: Balloon Hunting Season

Apparently this was also the first day of hunting season!


Our last flight was interesting to say the least. It was an adventure from start to finish and it began with a science fair project by students of the Far Horizons Teacher Experience at Haines Elementary School in Chinatown. The project was to analyze how exposure to higher levels of radiation would effect Wisconsin FastPlants brassica seeds (that normally germinate in 10 days).



Space Seeds

Space Seeds

The control seeds stayed on the ground, and the others flew. The “outside” seeds were attached to the outside of the payload box, and the “inside” seeds stayed in the payload box. The seeds inside the box weren’t subjected to as low of temps as the outside seeds were.


Their “Space Seeds” experiment came in second place at Haines Middle School! They will move on to the next round of the science fair in January.


HOWEVER-giving you the behind the scenes experience of the flight itself, is our guest correspondent and Volunteer Program Manager at the Adler Planetarium, Kat Lucid.


***Post by Kat Lucid

Last Saturday I got the opportunity to go on my first Far Horizons launch! At about 9:00am, Ken, Cynthia, three interns, and I were off and headed towards Kankakee. It was about an hour drive, so Ken went over what was going to happen and started distributing everyone’s roles. Upon our arrival at the airport, we went about normal prep to get the balloon ready for launch.

Edited Movie

The real adventure started after the launch, when we were on the chase for the balloon. It was a clear day, and we were amazingly lucky to have a visual on the balloon at 95,000 feet right before it popped. At this altitude, the balloon was the size of a house, or about 35 feet across. We used our GPS tracking as well as our predicted flight path to head in the direction of the equipment as it made its way back to the earth.


Our GPS led us to a field somewhere in Northwest Indiana, and Ken pulled over once we were close enough to the signal to start getting out and looking for the equipment. We needed to get permission to go out and search in the fields, and we happened upon three gentlemen who appeared to be gearing up for a hunt. It turned out that it was the first day of hunting season in Indiana (because of course it was) and we were warned that if we went out there looking for our balloon, there was a good chance we would be shot.


With the spirit of a warrior, Ken made the executive decision that we’d be absolutely fine. We drove to the opposite side of the field, away from where we met the gentlemen ready for the hunt, and saw that we were actually closer to the payload than we were before. We grabbed some orange safety vests out of our kit in the van, and were granted permission to drive out onto the farmland to retrieve the payload. In order to get this permission, Ken spoke to a woman through a door on the property. She would not open the door because there were many excited dogs on the other side. I am still very disappointed that I did not get to pet any. I’ll get over it.


We drove the van up onto the farm, past some cows who were kind enough to make a clear path for us to follow. Past the herd, we encountered a small bridge over a creek, and stopped the vehicle just in front of a barbed wire fence at the bottom of the hill. It was time to tempt fate, so we climbed out of the van in our bright orange vests and under the barbed wire one by one as Ken held it open.


Success! Our bright yellow box of science was in the distance and in plain sight. A tree or a river didn’t catch it, as we had originally feared, and all was well with the world again.

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The ride home was peppered with terrible dad jokes via Ken and the interns and I reminiscing on our wacky adventures that day.




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Flight #84: Sunset Soar to the Stratosphere

Arrival for Night Flight

Arrival for Night Flight

Like our last post about Flight# 78, Flight# 84 was also a night flight.  An experiment to further test equipment for our Cube Sat (or cube satellite) Mission. The Adler is in the process of becoming the first planetarium in space with a cube satellite with the NITESat(Night Imaging and Tracking Experiment Satellite) Project and intends to monitor light pollution from orbit.  It was a gorgeous night for a sunset, but for our flight we had doubts about visibility with the slight cloud cover rolling in and the soon to be full moon.

Goodnight Sun. Hello Clouds!

Goodnight Sun. Hello Clouds!

It was, after all Sept. 26th, 2015, the day before the lunar eclipse of the famed “Super Moon.” We would see how “super” it would make our analysis of light pollution from the sky.

Let’s get you up to speed on what we threw up in the air.  Seeing as how we are interested in the capability of “off the shelf” cameras in high altitudes.  The quality and the resolution of the images, and how they perform in extremely high altitudes.  We could use the data from this flight to gauge what specifications need to change for the higher altitude of the Cube Sat (about 5x as high) .

Hacked Canon A640

Hacked Canon A640



Using a Canon Hack Program on the SD Card we programmed an intervalometer to take varying exposures on a loop through the entire flight.  We affixed the Cannon camera with beautiful neon pink 50lb zip ties, bolts, and washers to disperse the pressure to keep the pvc from cracking.


Hacked GoPro3

Hacked GoPro3




Two GoPros were affixed to the frame as well. From previous tests we knew they were hackable and record flights well in HD. We changed out the lens of one GoPro (seen to the left) to a telephoto, and hacked its operating to prepare it for flight.

We assembled the frame as a test preflight to understand where all the parts should be screwed bolted and taped.



This aided our preflight assembly in the hangar with limited light from the setting sun and preflight jitters (oh yeah, it was my first flight). I don’t know about you but I’m a sucker for high altitude ballooning with biplanes.

Assembling the Payload Frame in the Hangar

Assembling the Payload Frame in the Hangar














All hands on deck! Men, women and kids!

Did I mention this was my first flight?












Although a thin layer of clouds had rolled in we kept our fingers crossed, prepped the frame, started the GoPros, made sure GPS was transmitting, began the strobes for recovery and launched.  You might be able to hear my chortles of joy!

You can observe that on the way up we were able to see the lights of Kankakee and as we move even higher, the clouds part for a bit and you can make out the city of Chicago. If you look really close towards the edge of lake Michigan, around 1:08, you can spot the Great Chicago Fire Festival at Northerly Island.  So obviously at roughly 70,000 feet, this GoPro2, is still recording fine and we are able to monitor the light pollution given off from the city.  Important information for us to gather and keep in mind as we move forward on our NITESat Mission.

The balloon reached to a little over 95,000 feet before exploding and beginning its descent. We tracked its GPS signal and spotted it near touchdown from its bright strobes.  It landed not too far from the launch site in the middle of a corn field. Big surprise!  It positioned itself more or less like a ring toss in the midst of dry, razor sharp, autumnal stalks.

Corn Stalk Ring TossDead Canon CameraP1040702If you build it...

We found that all the cameras on the payload frame were off and covered in a nice layer of condensation from flight.  We had to disassemble the dang thing to hoof it back to the road. A little scratched up, but victorious, we returned to the lab to process our data and prepare for the next flight!

IMG_1360 Recovery Team...I'm Beaming"Super Moon" Eve!


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