Local groups launch trackable, solar-powered, weather-transmittable balloon

RICHLAND, Wash — A group of researchers gathered early Thursday morning at the REACH Museum to launch a project they’ve been working on for months — a seven-foot long trackable, solar-powered, weather-transmittable balloon.

Members from the museum, local nonprofit SILAS Education and Spout Springs Repeater Association (SSRA) met just after 6 a.m. on March 11th for their second launch attempt after strong winds from the week prior forced a delay.

“This was a relief to see the perfect conditions as far as the weather goes this morning and to see that balloon sailing off into the sky,” said Pauline Schafer, the museum’s education manager.

Trevor Macduff, the president of SILAS Education, noted that “it felt really good to get it up after last weekend’s bad weather conditions.”

“I just love the idea of organizations coming together and making awesome things happen for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in our community,” Macduff said.

There are multiple goals for this balloon including learning about weather and geography-related information from all over the globe and seeing it circle the world 22 times.

“It catches the jet stream and sends us details about where it is in the world and what it’s doing,” Macduff said. “We can track this information and learn about weather, weather patterns, wind, radio waves and more.”

The team used solar panels to “allow the sun to charge the capacitor because batteries are too heavy.”

“If the tracker is within 200 miles and solar-charged, the capacitor is able to send out a radio signal through the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) network every two minutes to let us know where it is at all times,” Macduff said.

Stephen Hutchings, the president of SSRA, said that seeing the balloon rise was “elating.”

“I can’t wait to see where it’s going to go and what we’re going to see from its elevation and the countries, continents and states,” Hutchings said.

He added that the project is also meant to “inspire and engage” adults and children alike.

“People around the globe will be wondering what that signal coming from 40,000 ft. high is. It’ll direct everyone’s attention back to the Northwest,” Hutchings said.

Although it was just some team members at the launch, Hutchings said it took hundreds of dollars of funding and months to create.

“All of the materials cost nearly $400 dollars,” Hutchings said.

So to honor everyone who donated to help fund the project, the team wrote their name and their call sign on the satellite as a way to show appreciation.

“This is the first balloon launch for the Repeater Association and the REACH Museum together but we hope it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Macduff said.

If you want to find and track the balloon’s progress, there are multiple ways to do so.

“The balloon is trackable not only by amateur radio operators but by the general public as well,” Hutchings said.

One way is to visit the APRS map directly here. Another is to go to the APRS website here and enter W2RY-11 as the call sign.