What is a Pico Balloon?

Andy Pico Balloon to New ZealandMaking a Pico Balloon

by Robert Brand

There is not much in making a pico balloon – literally. My friend Andy has been making and flying pico balloons for a while now. These are basically strong foil party balloons that you can buy prefilled from a party shop. In fact, I believe that Andy keeps a few at home, ready to launch. When he sees the winds are right he adds the tiny GPS receiver, computer, APRS 10mW transmitter, Battery and antenna. These are secured to the balloon with little more than fishing line. The payload only weighs 13 grans – that is less than half an ounce.

In Australia, there are 4 classes of untethered or FREE balloons:

“Small, Light, Medium and Heavy balloons”

CASR Part 101E states:

A small balloon means a free balloon that can carry no more than 50 grams of payload.

So Andy’s balloon is classified as a “Small” balloon.

Provided that he does not launch within 6 nautical miles of an airport ( 11.112km), a single small balloon does not need CASA approval. CASA are the Australian Civil Aviation Authority and their job is to police the CASR (Civil Aviation Safety Regulations). Up to 100 small balloons may be released at the same time if far enough away from n airport or air field without needing CASA approval. If more are to released, the number and distance from the field must be considered as it defines what approval CASA need to give.

Other countries mostly have the same regulations, but you must check before releasing any balloon.

This information was correct at the time of publication, but readers are reminded to check for any changes in the regulations before releasing any balloon.

As for the payload, Andy chose to use th HAM Radio APRS system to track his balloons as HAM radio operators (Amateur Radio Operators) have set up a global network of tracking systems. Andy has his amateur radio license and is capable of making very small electronic components. He has chosen a small lithium battery and thin wires for the antenna. Each 5.5 minutes, the transmitter pulses a 10mW APRS signal from the payload and it can simply be tracked on the internet by anyone.

In the picture above, look carefully at the little black dot near the base of the clouds and a little to the left of the balloon. That is the 13 gram payload. Depending on air pressure, the balloon will sit in the lower jet stream between 6,500m to 8,500m altitude.

My friend Andy (VK3YT) is a master of minaturisation. Pico by definition means “one trillionth” – The work is used to emphasis the tin size of the payload – sounds better than a “small balloon”! He sent that picture to show the release of a recent flight! I hope to have a great announcement for you all soon about another Pico flight!

Just in case you have not read the previous articles. A balloon this size made from Melbourne to Sydney and on to New Zealand, crossing the Tasman Sea in just over 24 hours.


New Zealand gives Andy a Big Tick

New Zealand encounterBig Tick for NZ APRS and TransTasman Success

by Robert Brand

The New Zealand encounter with Andy’s (VK3YT) Pico Balloon (launched from Melbourne) has now ended. The low power from the Balloon payload will probably not be heard of again unless the Jet Stream turns the balloon around for another pass. It is unlikely to return, but there are some big changes in the Jet stream from time to time.Current predictions say it will head east and out into open water until the batteries fail.

It was fortunate that the balloon made it to New Zealand before the Jet Stream winds changed direction. The flight stayed over New Zealand for most of the day giving those interested in tracking it the opportunity to see where it was headed.

The balloon has been sitting at around 8,500m for most of the time in NZ. One APRS amateur radio station that was the first to receive Andy’s signals was also the last to track the balloon as it left New Zealand The APRS iGate received out packets and sent them to the Internet . Today I spoke with the owner of the iGate and there were a few interesting things that I should mention.

Warren Harris (ZL2AJ)  lives near Hastings in New Zealand and his antenna and receiver are at the top of a 720m hill. It is relayed down the hill by another radio link and into his iGate and on to the Internet. His radio received most of the packets from the balloon and only when the balloon was close to some other iGate receivers did they get the traffic.  I spoke with Warren about the balloon flight and he said it created a lot of “buzz” on the chat and email groups. Warren will write a story on this for NZ. Andy said that he will send a picture of the balloon to him for publications

Another interesting fact was that Warren’s iGate was broken yesterday with a faulty power supply. He fixed it last night without knowing that Andy’s balloon was on the way. It was only operational for a few hours before Andy’s balloon came over.

Andy (and I) want to thank all those in NZ that have APRS iGates and digipeaters. It is a great service for new endeavours. A special thanks to Warren whose iGate seems to outperform all others when it comes to ballooning.

TransTasman Balloon Breaks Records

Andy NZ TrackTransTasman Balloon Heads to the North Island

The record breaking balloon flight launched by my friend and colleague  Andy VK2YT continues to break records. It was thought that it would pass over the south island and out to sea, but it has changed course and headed north and is now crossing the stretch of water between the north and south island and will remain in range of HAM radio APRS trackers for many hours to come.

Launched from Melbourne, Australia on Sunday, it left the Australian coast just after midnight on Monday Morning and took just over 24 hours to reach New Zealand

A long range PICO balloon flight is under way. Predicted path is Melbourne – Sydney – NZ

Payload is an ultra-light APRS beacon transmitting 10mW on 144.575Mhz (NZ APRS).

Callsign is VK3YT-11

APRS tracking at

Tracking with prediction at

Updates will be posted at http://picospace.net

Andy NZ Track

Australia to New Zealand Balloon Success

Andy New ZealandTrans Tasman Balloon Success

Congratulations to Andy, VK3YT in getting his Pico Balloon from Melbourne Australia to New Zealand. The balloon crossed land in New Zealand at 1600 UTC (GMT)  17th March 2014.

The flight last tracked offshore from Sydney more than a day ago and the tiny balloon has been transmitting its signal over the ocean until it changed frequencies at 160 degrees longitude to the New Zealand APRS tracking system.

NZ Amateur radio station Zl2AJ-5 was the first to hear the tiny 10mW transmitter as it neared the coast. The balloon will likely pass over the country within an hour and sone after the transmitter will fail with the battery losing power.

A long range PICO balloon flight is under way. Predicted path is Melbourne – Sydney – NZ

Payload is an ultra-light APRS beacon transmitting 10mW on 144.575Mhz.

Callsign is VK3YT-11

APRS tracking at

Tracking with prediction at

Updates will be posted at http://picospace.net

Andy NZ


Andy’s Long Distance HAB Attempt

Angy Pico Flight to NZAustralia to New Zealand HAB Attempt

Last night I got word that my good friend Andy from Melbourne was attempting a long distance Trans Tasman Balloon attempt. I’m not sure if it qualifies as a High Altitude Balloon flight as it just gets to about 7km altitude and not the typical 20km to 30km. It is classified as a small balloon and does not require CASA permission to fly. Simply it is a foil balloon that cannot expand and a very light payload. In this case the tracking payload is a single AAA battery and a 10mW tracker. The payload weights only 13 grams. The balloon is set to float at about 7,000m and when Andy launched the balloon it was predicted to fly from Melbourne to Sydney and on to New Zealand.

Andy’s email said:

FYI, A long range PICO balloon flight is under way. Predicted path is Melbourne – Sydney – New Zealand.
Currently over Victoria Alpine National Park at 7000m, doing 125km/h.

Payload is an ultra-light APRS beacon transmitting 10mW on 145.175Mhz.   Callsign is VK3YT-11

APRS tracking at

Tracking with prediction at

Updates will be posted at http://picospace.net

 Expected to reach Sydney tonight, then it will be out to sea.
If the balloon survives tomorrow it might be within range of New Zealand APRS stations around 12:00 UTC 17/3

TX frequency will switch to NZ APRS frequency 144.575Mhz once 160.0 longitude is crossed.

Regards, Andy

Well around Midnight last night the little balloon tracked right over Sydney and if I had binoculars and it was daylight I could have seen it!  It was last tracked about 30km off Sydney headed to New Zealand. We are waiting to see if it arrives in New Zealand in a few hours.


Andy flight to NZ.

Rossby Waves, Hadley Cells and the Jetstream

Rossby Waves, Hadley Cells and Distorted Jet Stream

Seems that Global Warming has a lot to do with the difficulties we are experiencing with our weather. The Jet Stream is pretty neat without Global Warming and very predictable and so is the weather. Recently, the northern hemisphere experienced massive cool events and extremely cold weather. Why?

So what does the Jet Stream do normally?

The circulating air patterns create convection currents in four global locations—each current is called a Hadley cell. The pattern of air movement is toward the Earth (pro-grade) at higher latitudes (in the subtropics) and backward (up from the Earth) at lower latitudes (near the equator). The movement occurs near the Earth’s surface—within 6.2-9.3 mi. (10-15 km.). Its span across latitudinal markers remains within thirty degrees north or south of the equator. In this way, a Hadley cell moves heat from the equatorial region to regions within 30 degrees of latitude in either direction. Moisture is moved along with the heat.

Hadley Cells

Hadley Circulation provides westward wind flow at the Earth’s surface (Trade Winds) and eastward jet streams at higher altitudes. The circulating air patterns create convection currents in four global locations—each current is called a Hadley cell.


In a Hadley cell, the air rises to the atmospheric tropopause, which is the region at the top border of the troposphere and thus the bottom border of the stratosphere. The troposphere is the lowest atmospheric region and is where all weather takes place. At the equator, it reaches up to 11 mi. (18 km.) from the earth’s surface.

The next atmospheric layer is the stratosphere, extending to 31 mi. (50 km.) from the Earth’s surface. This characteristic air circulation results from the Sun’s rays heating the air at the level of the equator. Solar heating is strongest at the equator and weakest at the north and south poles, due to the direction of the Sun’s rays, and therefore currents of atmospheric circulation due to solar heating are more prominent at the equator.

Hadley Circulation was first described by George Hadley (1685-1768) to explain the science behind the trade winds. It was to replace a flawed model that had been presented by Edmond Halley (1656-1742). George Hadley was an early 18th century meteorologist by hobby and lawyer by trade.

In fact, Hadley’s theory was imperfect as well. It was corrected by American meteorologist William Ferrel (1817-91) at the end of the 19th century, but by this time Hadley’s name had stuck. The Hadley Circulation is traditionally defined as resting on the equator; in fact it rests on the “thermal equator,” or the Sun’s zenith.

Rossby Waves

Rossby Waves - Jet sStreamWarming Arctic May Be Causing Jet Stream To Lose Its Way. Echoing trends since roughly 2010-2011, NPR reports on how changes in far northern latitudes may be showing up in the skies floating above your house; here’s an excerpt: “…The temperature difference between the Arctic and lower latitudes is one of the main sources of fuel for the jet stream; it’s what drives the winds. And because the Arctic is warming so fast, that temperature difference is getting smaller, and so the fuel for the jet stream is getting weaker,” Francis says. “When it gets into this pattern, those big waves tend to stay in the same place for some time. The pattern we’ve seen in December and January has been one of these very wavy patterns...”

Image credit above: “The jet stream that circles Earth’s north pole travels west to east. But when the jet stream interacts with a Rossby wave, as shown here, the winds can wander far north and south, bringing frigid air to normally mild southern states.” NASA/GSFC.

Researching Balloon Launches in a New Country

Croatia LandminesBalloon Launches in a New Country – How To…

In the next few weeks, Jason and I will head to Croatia to oversee the balloon project of Team Stellar. So far we have been working with the team from afar and good communications are essential. We have email, Skype, Dropbox and more, so communications are good. We have been working with time issues to make sure everything happens in a timely fashion – there is a country wide student competition at stake. The students and their mentors are working hard so everything has to go well.

Our biggest problems are ones that we do not have here in Australia. We are used to having a very big launch and recovery area in Australia with few trees and little chance of water. It has good tracking and good mobile data coverage.

Croatia? Well there are plenty of unknowns for both me and the rest of the team in Croatia. The requirements are to keep the balloon in Croatia. This is hard. It is a small country with an unusual shape. The useful West to East range is only about 300km and it is pretty tight too.

That is Croatia in the map top right. So what are all the red bits? Stuff that we have to avoid! Things that we are not used to in Australia. They are land mines. We cannot afford to have our payloads drop anywhere near them. These are left over from the wars in the area from 1991 to 1995. These mines are still very new and deadly.

So what else we will have to contend with? Snow, mountains, poor Internet coverage, pine forests, unknown APRS coverage to name a few.

We will have all the risky stuff covered including cut-down systems to keep the balloons from going too far. Our best weapon is research. Knowing what the upper winds are doing is key to having the best chance of keeping the balloon in the country. We have a few resources to consider. Some we have already told you about.

I will be using the Jet Stream weather links for Europe:


Another is the historic movement of the jet-stream – basically you can get a feel for what is coming


Finally some prediction software from HABHUB – this set up for our project and Zagreb, but you can adjust for your own needs.:



I am now keeping records for the Jet Stream in Croatia each day (I missed yesterday). This will show us the main issues with the winds and how they flow. We have already found major differences between Australia and Croatia with total reverses in the Jet Stream over long periods. Australia seems far more consistent, but Croatia is closer to the northern boundary of the system that determines the winds, compared to where I launch from in Australia.  Here in Australia we are further away from one of the jet Stream boundaries. I will post more on that soon.

Here are the records for three of the last four days. I will have a month of records to get to know the way this all works.

20140311 Jet Stream  20140311 HABHUB prediction - 30km


20140312 Jet Stream  20140312 HABHUB prediction - 30km


20140314 Jet Stream  20140314 HABHUB prediction - 30km


The Z shape is common the many flights with the change in wind direction as the balloon rises from the Jet STream to the Stratospheric wind. Once the balloon bursts, the payload goes back through the same winds and the same eind directions get duplicated. It comes down faster, so the tail is a little shorter.

The prediction of the 4th day is a very good on for an easy recovery. It stays well in Croatia and away from the mines and can be launched from Zagreb. Simply we would not launch from Zagreb as we have little control of range. I only use Zagreb as a reference to see where the balloon will end up and the conditions that control the wind directions.

Balloon Launches in a New Country can be a real problem – even across a big country. Take care and research things well.

Stellar Stratospheric Balloon HAB Workshops

Bojan Markičević and workshopsBalloon HAB Workshops Scheduled in Croatia

What does it take to ensure that a major project like Stellar’s Stratospheric Balloon project works? Simply, lots of work by lots of people.

In recent days we have been examining the payload weights and requirements. Each experiment is allowed 150g or mass on board the balloons. None the less some have dangerous aspects such as fluids or heat generation. We have to ensure that their placement within our payload containment allows them to have the right “view”, air flow or whatever they require.  We rely on strong equipment descriptions and we have provided a wealth of information about designing and building payload containers, etc.

None the less, the contestants in what is effectively a competition have never done this before and simply, they need more assistance. To meet these needs we have assembled a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and our response. Stellar member Bojan Markičević will be traveling around Croatia and providing workshops for the various teams. The workshops have already commenced. The FAQ is below.

Download (PDF, 256KB)

Want to know more about this Stellar event?


Here are the details for our Balloon HAB Workshops – courtesy of Google translate:

Schedule creative Balloon HAB Workshops

Dear teams ,

Below is the schedule and locations of scientific and creative Balloon HAB Workshops. Workshops carried Bojan Markičević a period of 4-5 hours .

Also we want to remind you to forward information ( if possible , in English ) related to your experiments ( weight , volume , special handling ) to 10/03/2014 .
Please enclose as much information about your experiments , so that our technical team ( Robert Brand , Tim Blaxland and Vilko Klein ) could plan a schedule of cargo .

Workshop schedule :

10.3 . ( M ) – Sisak , location : Technical School Sisak , time : 10:00 / / Teams : Stream instantly impulse , Gorilaz , SOLAR TEAM

11.3 . ( T ) – Kutina , location : technical schools Kutina , time : 09:30 / / Teams : GRAVITY , SPACE JET

13.3 . ( Thu ) – Zagreb , location : High school Luciano Laurana , Time : 11:00 / / Teams : ASTRONITHYUS , Suave , TIM HELIOS , CROSTRATOS
14.3 . ( Five ) – Zagreb , location : First Technical School , Time : 11:00 / / Teams : X – TESLA , FAUST TEAM

18.3 . ( T ) – Metkovic , location : High school Metkovic , Time : 15:00 / / Teams : BHIS PRISM SPECTRUM

19.3 . ( W ) – Zadar , location : Vocational School Vice Vlatković Time : 13:00 / / Team : EIGHTBIT

20.3 . ( Fri) – Rijeka , location : Elektorindustrijska and crafts school in Rijeka , time : 10:00 / / Teams : ELECTRIC DREAMS , gymnasium Pula ( Pula )
24.3 . ( M ) – Osijek , location : Electrical Engineering and Traffic School Osijek , time : 13:30 / / THE Renewables , DEA

25.3 . ( T ) – Daruvar Location: Technical School Daruvar , time : 11:00 / / CRANES , Bjelovar STELLAR LABARATORY ( Bjelovar )

See you soon !

NASA EDGE TV Appearance

nasatvNASA EDGE TV and KickSat.

by Robert Brand.

I have long been both a watcher and supporter of NASA EDGE TV so it was great when asked if I would take part in a pre-launch interview for the KickSat project (aboard SpaceX CRS-3). NASA EDGE has changed from the early days when it was a little less polished and has now cemented a strong place in the NASA TV family.

NASA EDGE is a video podcast which explores different missions, technologies and projects developed by NASA. The program was released by NASA on March 18, 2007.  They also do live streaming video and I have been asked to take part the pre-launch activities for SpaceX Falcon9 launch in about 12 days’ time. I will be talking about the KickSat project that will be riding on board the rocket.  In fact a KickSat that I will part own will be on board, ready to fly into space and then into orbit as a complete spacecraft.

Watch out for the launch of SpaceX CRS-3 and of course KickSat

Things may change, but I will provide details as it gets closer to launch time. Let’s hope I’m still part of the program, but as a seasoned speaker, I know what can go wrong with any booking or any launch.

Want to know more about NASA EDGE?

What is NASA EDGE?


NASA EDGE. One NASA. Two hosts. Twenty thousand plus rocket scientists. We have liftoff!

NASA EDGE is different. Unscripted and unpredictable, NASA EDGE takes a unique look in and around the greatest space program on the planet.

Whether it’s the latest launch or the coolest gadgets, NASA EDGE hosts provide an offbeat, funny and informative look behind the NASA curtain. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about NASA but thought you needed to be a rocket scientist, wait no longer. Watch NASA EDGE and embrace your inner astronaut.






Jason (11 y/o) to Recover Balloons in Croatia

20130414 Jason Brand on the Fuzzy Logic Science ShowAustralian Student Recover Balloons in Croatia

Okay, I’ll be traveling with him to Croatia, but since there are two separate balloons to track and recover on two days, Jason will be well and truly tracking without my help and in a foreign country. He will have the team Stellar guys with him, but he will be doing the tracking and navigation for his vehicle. Stellar is a Team in the Google Lunar X Prize event. Have a look on Wiki to find out more.

jason is an 11 year old student in year 7 at Sydney Secondary College, Balmain Campus. At age 9 he obtained his Amateur Radio License (Foundation). We has some programing experience and builds and repairs helicopters and tricopters. He has helped track and recover 16 successful High Altitude Balloons and together Jason and I have the world’s highest recovery rate – 100% over an enormous number of missions.

A quick snapshot of the whole event:

We travel to Croatia at the start of the NSW school holidays. They are two weeks long. Jason and I will probably be traveling with fellow Team Stellar member Tim Blaxland. Tim is our team’s chief of UpLift-2Navigation. I look after the Team’s Communications, Tracking and Data. Jason is the Australian Student Representative and he is also my son.

Jason will be taking part in the planning phases of the mission and will have a big role in talking to the press and to school students. He will be bringing his newly built tricopter with him and he will be showing students what they can do with a little help. he will be talking about High Altitude Balloons (HAB) and the science of the troposphere and the stratosphere.

We will launch over two days and thus need to track 4 balloons – mostly with students experiments.  We have done our best to ensure success of Stellar’s “Balloon Stratosphere“.

Follow up interviews and more student mentoring and sessions.

Return to Sydney.

Much of this trip will be assisting the Croatian members of Team Stellar to get comfortable with HAB missions. Jason and I hope that we can pass on our expertise to the Croatian members.

Tim Blaxland already has some experience helping with a flight in NSW with us. That flight achieved nearly 37km altitude. We recovered the payload in a freshly cut wheat field a few weeks back.

More updates with travel and tracking information shortly. The picture below is Jason, Tim and I with some others preparing the recent balloon for flight. it is a 1.2kg balloon. Stellar’s balloons will be 3kg! That is the view from the payload camera.