July 2018 to present – We are collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to design and develop a GNSS-RO weather sensor on a balloon platform. High-level project goals include improving global weather predictions and advancing climate research. Some time soon, we hope our work will improve the forecasting of high-impact weather events such as hurricanes and tropical cyclones.
Global Navigation Satellite System Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO) is a remote sensing technique that detects changes in received GNSS radio signals as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. A GNSS radio occultation occurs when a GNSS satellite rises or sets across the Earth horizon with respect to a GNSS observer (see figure). The GNSS signal passing through the atmosphere is measurably bent, which provides atmospheric information such as temperature, pressure, humidity, and ionospheric electron count.
The use of GNSS receivers via the radio occultation technique has led to significant advances in weather and climate research by providing high-accuracy vertical resolution of refractivity, temperature, and water vapor information. While there are several operational space satellite missions with GNSS-RO payloads, there continues to be: 1) gaps in spatial data; 2) difficulty in remotely sensing the planetary boundary layer, and 3) limited funds for GNSS-RO missions. Our research aims to tackle these major issues and provide long-term and highly accurate atmospheric thermodynamic information that are complementary to state-of-the-art satellite observations.
In 2018, NCL successfully conducted two high-altitude balloon flights carrying two GNSS-RO payloads, reaching 33.2 km (109,041 ft) in altitude. The team successfully tracked five major GNSS constellations during these two flight campaigns. Additionally, NCL collected relevant GNSS-RO data by tracking GNSS satellites to negative elevation angles. These data were post-processed into excess phase delays, and input into post-processing software to retrieve bending angle vertical profiles. The post-processed results agreed well with the simulated profiles, providing a preliminary validation of NCL’s experiments.
Bryan Chan presented preliminary results at American Geophysical Union (AGU 2018) and American Meteorological Society (AMS 2019) conferences. We look forward to continuing this research and sharing these results with the scientific community.
January 2019 - NCL collaborated with Hershey Canada with their literal product launch and social media advertising campaign for Reese’s Pieces Peanut.
The premise of the mission was to fly a full-size, point-of-sale merchandise stand with Reese’s Pieces to the stratosphere, offering extraterrestrials free samples. After launching the display from the Mojave Desert, we’re not so sure all the candy came back…
Client: Hershey Canada (@reesecanada)
Ad Agency: Anomaly
March 2017 – NCL set out to Alaska with the wild ambition of recording video of the northern lights, for the first time in known history, from a high altitude balloon. After many local test flights in California, several design iterations, and much planning, we headed north.
We spent a total of two and half weeks in Fairbanks. The first week was spent doing reconnaissance and testing equipment. Neither our flight cameras or us had ever seen the northern lights, so we had to make sure we had our settings right. We were fortunate to have high auroral activity (kp’s of 4 to 6) and clear skies, giving rise to some of the most stunning views of our lives.
Since we were up all night chasing aurorae, we used what little daylight hours we had while awake to scout out and plan launch and landing locations that were accessible by road, at least as best we could. It gets rural fast outside of Fairbanks itself, but the winds were (at least somewhat) in our favor.
We flew a total of 3 balloon flights over Fairbanks, two during the day, and one at night to capture video of the aurora.
To capture the relatively faint aurora borealis at night on video, we needed a low-light capable camera system. We decided on the Sony a7S: a low weight, full-frame mirrorless camera with incredible low light sensitivity. Before the Alaska mission, we decided to flight test the Sony a7S performance in the stratosphere. In 2015 and 2016, we launched separate high-altitude balloon missions, testing the camera’s capability. After stellar results, we decided to continue baseline it as the flight camera to capture the aurora. Along with the camera, we used the following supporting equipment to make up the camera payload:
Sony a7S (Mark I)
Rokinon 24mm, f/1.4 lens
Atomos NInja Flame 4K Recorder
Varavon External Battery
Neat Video (software plugin)
The complexity of this mission in the harsh Alaska conditions called for some custom hardware. This began with the NCL Balloon Integrated Re-programmable Computer (BRIC) – Mark II. The BRIC consists of an Arduino MEGA which runs our custom flight management software. We had a custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB) fabricated to allow for ease of integration with other components including a GPS unit, radio telemetry link, barometric altitude sensor, and 8 thermistors (temperature sensors). The GPS helps us determine position, the radio allows us to track the payload in real time, and the thermistors give feedback for our electric heating system needed to keep everything from freezing in the harsh -50 deg C (-58 deg F) high altitude environment.
In addition to capturing video of the northern lights, we collected radiation measurements during the flight. For more on the science of the aurora and these radiation measurements, check out this in-depth article by NCL’s Ashish Goel.
Our successful night flight can be seen on YouTube here.
March 2017 – We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska and flew three balloons over the state. We chose March, near the vernal equinox, as the optimal time to observe the Aurora Borealis due to the right combination of clear skies and space weather.
Our primary objective in Alaska was to successfully video record the Northern Lights on a balloon platform for the first time. Prior to doing so, we planned to fly a couple high-altitude balloons during the day to acclimate to the weather and capture the beautiful snowy landscape.
The complexity of this mission in the harsh Alaska conditions called for some custom hardware. This began with the NCL Balloon Integrated Re-programmable Computer (BRIC) – Mark II. The BRIC consists of an Arduino MEGA which runs our custom flight management software. We had a custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB) fabricated to allow for ease of integration with other components including a GPS unit, radio telemetry link, barometric altitude sensor, and 8 thermistors (temperature sensors). The GPS helps us determine position, the radio allows us to track the payload in real time, and the thermistors give feedback for our electric heating system needed to keep everything from freezing in the harsh -50 C (-58 F) high altitude environment.
The PCB design also allowed us to easily assemble multiple units, allowing us to bring two complete builds with us to Alaska. This was a necessity, as there was a very real possibility we would lose one in the remote Alaskan wilderness. We also had a day and night configuration, the difference between them being cameras. The day flight configuration flew a GoPro Hero 4 Black, a 360Fly virtual reality camera, and a Google Pixel phone. The GoPro Hero 4 and 360Fly recorded in 4K during the entire flight, while the Google Pixel was set to take pictures every two seconds. The night flight was designed around the low-light capable Sony A7S with an external 4K recorder.
March 2016 – We recreated end of the NASA Apollo Command Module re-entry profile by dropping a 1:12 scale replica from the stratosphere, in collaboration with Adam Savage’s Tested media company.
To gain the needed altitude, the capsule was carried to more than 70,000 ft on a high altitude balloon. It was then autonomously cut down, triggered by GPS altitude telemetry. It commenced free falling for several minutes and approached descent speeds of 80 mph before landing. As with the original Apollo mission, our capsule was equipped with 3 main parachutes which were deployed at 24,000 ft, allowing a safe return to Earth. This project took custom hardware and software, and multiple flights. More details on the flight and build was presented at the Tested Live Show at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on Saturday, October 29, 2016.
To accomplish this mission, we first built the Balloon Integrated Re-programmable Computer (BRIC). The BRIC is an Arduino-based flight management computer. It uses GPS and a backup barometer to trigger the cut-down mechanism and parachute deployment. The parachutes are servo-controlled, spring-deployed UAV recovery parachutes. The cut-down mechanism was based on a nichrome wire which is heated to melt through the nylon rope. It has a radio transmitter to communicate mission telemetry and location to a mobile ground station. Active heating control keeps batteries and electronics warm without allowing them to overheat. We also designed a 3D-printed custom structure to house the parachutes and the BRIC inside the capsule.
The second goal of the mission was the capture video of the San Francisco Bay Area from the stratosphere at night, viewing the city lights below. This used a Sony A7S camera along with a set up similar to our San Francisco mission. Thanks to honorary NCL member Adrien Perkins for building our ground station, aiding in launch and logistics, and for his UAV filming during launch.
Thank you to:
Frank Ippolito who built the replica capsule.
Adam Savage who painted the capsule and gave it the proper Apollo aesthetic.
Norman Chan who came out on the day of the flight and helped in the search with his UAV
Kishore Hari who orchestrated the whole project and made the live show possible.
The premise of the mission was to fly hand-written postcards along with a pair of Huawei smartwatches to the edge of space and back. On a windy morning in the Mojave Desert, we released the balloon and payload into the desert sky.
Max altitude: 100,000 ft (30.5 km)
Max speed: 136.3 mph (219 km/h)
Range from launch site: 62 miles (99 km)
Launch time: 11:05 (Pacific Time)
Flight duration: 1h 50 min
Recovery time: 14:26 (Pacific Time) – 3h 21 min from launch
Facebook video views: 550,000+
December 2015 – After the success of our Grand Canyon mission, members of the team set out to launch an even more ambitious mission under the Night Crew Labs banner.
In October of 2015, Night Crew Labs, consisting of Bryan Chan, Ashish Goel, Tyler Reid, Corey Snyder, and Paul Tarantino, started development work to eventually capture video of the northern lights from a high altitude balloon in the high latitude regions of Alaska. To do this, they quickly realized that large aperture cameras with good low-light performance would be needed to capture the beauty of the aurorae on a moving platform.
To achieve this ultimate goal, several smaller goals had to first be attained. This included building a rig that can handle low light conditions as well as multiple camera angles, improve our launch and recovery skills, and improve our overall mission planning. To test each of these, we set out to build this rig and test it in the San Francisco Bay Area where we live. The goal here was to do a full test and identify any problems in the design before attempting a night launch in the extreme cold of the remote Alaskan wilderness.
The payload was split into two boxes – the first stage (the bottom box) and a smaller second stage (the top box). The first stage contained 3 separate cameras. The first is arguably our primary payload, our selected low light capable camera, the Sony A7S mirrorless camera pointed towards the horizon. The Sony A7S was outfitted with a Sony 10-18 mm f/4 wide angle lens. That specific lens was chosen for its light weight, auto-focusing capability, and cost as it was much less expensive than its full-frame, E-mount, wide angle lens counterparts. Using Canon or Nikon lenses were not an option due to extra weight of the lens adapter. Next, we had a GoPro Hero 4 Black (donated the GoPro) also pointed towards the horizon. Finally, we had a Samsung Galaxy S5 provided by Broadcom taking pictures at 10 second intervals pointed straight down (nadir).
Thank You to:
Timothy Brodsky for helping with logistics, cinematography and his countless hours in producing our video.
Jill Merrigan for design and implementation of our website and for her marketing advice.
Danny Morris for his help with cinematography / photography.
May 2013 to 2015 – A weather balloon launched from the Grand Canyon is lost, then serendipitously FOUND two years later. A viral video campaign leads to over 7 million views on YouTube, and interviews with CNN and BBC.
In 2013, Bryan Chan, Ved Chirayath, Ashish Goel, Tyler Reid, and Paul Tarantino took on the challenge of flying a stratospheric weather balloon over the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Initiated by Ved’s dissertation research in fluid lensing, this mission built on our experience from our first balloon flight in 2011. This new balloon mission had more ambitious goals:
1. To perform fundamental scientific research in the area of fluid lensing.
2. To further test the navigation capabilities of commercial Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) in smartphones.
3. To take better pictures than in our first mission using some lessons learned.
4. To fly over the Grand Canyon while successfully doing 1, 2, and 3.
This mission was equipped with several cameras to collect data for the fluid lensing experiment which had the added benefit of documenting the mission. We had a GoPro Hero 3 and Sony Camcorder each taking HD video as well as a Samsung Galaxy Note II set to take still pictures. For the GNSS experiment, the system was equipped with an unmodified smartphone provided by Broadcom. We worked with Dr. Frank van Diggelen, V.P. of GPS Technology at Broadcom as well as a Consulting Professor at Stanford University, to achieve this part of the mission. On this flight, the GNSS reported a maximum altitude of 98,816 feet (30.1 km) and never once lost the ability to compute our position. This Galaxy Note II was equipped with a GPS + GLONASS + QZSS receiver. These devices were housed in a 3D printed structure printed by a Stratasys uPrint.
The 3D printed structure was then wrapped in soft foam for impact absorption and denser styrofoam for thermal insulation. This payload box was then tied to a radar reflector, parachute, and finally the weather balloon itself. The radar reflector gives high visibility to aircraft and is a device in place for safe operations in the airspace. The parachute is in place for the descent back to Earth. As the balloon ascends, the atmosphere gets thinner and the balloon expands. At some point the balloon can no longer expand due to limitations of the latex material and it simply bursts. The parachute is in place to slow the descent and ultimately give our equipment a gentle return to Earth.
Cell coverage in the area of the Grand Canyon was not as shown on some service providers websites. As a result of this, we lost contact with the balloon payload and did not hear from it again. We did have a backup transponder onboard which broadcast in the amateur radio band, but this proved too faint to be of use. The payload ran out its batteries and lay dormant in the desert for nearly 2 years. By some miracle, a hiker found our payload but unfortunately all identifying marks had worn off or blow away. It seems that cattle trampled our payload at some point, destroying most of the styrofoam box and 3D printed housing. By a twist of fate, this hiker worked for a cell service provider and determined how to contact us based on the sim card in the phone and all items were kindly returned. Amazingly, even though subjected to the harsh desert conditions for 2 years, all data was recovered. The Samsung phone and Sony Camcorder still work to this day. The GoPro unfortunately does not and was clearly more weathered than the other equipment. What seems to have happened is that the GoPro broke free upon landing, projecting out on the desert floor to lay exposed and bake in the Arizona sun. The other equipment was protected by the foam insulation and as a result sustained much less damage.
A post-flight analysis showed that all systems functioned as intended resulting in a collection of amazing photos and videos. The Smartphone GNSS unit also functioned beautifully, not only working above 60,000 feet out of the box but also never losing lock, even during the initial free fall which was a problematic area on our first balloon mission. in the violent spin of the descent, we caught a picture of the very house of the person who found our balloon.
The video of the mission (compiled by Bryan Chan) went viral and gained this project a lot of media attention. Please see the team’s interview with CNN, Bryan’s interview with the CBC, the article in the Washington Post, and coverage in the BBC, The New York Times, IFLScience, and PC Magazine.
Original reddit post here.
May 2011 – A weather balloon launched from Gilroy, California tested high-altitude smartphone GPS receiver performance. Based on the successful mission results, billions of smartphones (and counting) are now enabled with high-altitude GNSS location services.
This mission tested the ability of a smartphone to compute GPS positions at high altitudes (over 60,000 feet). US export control law requires commercial GPS units to cease functioning if above 60,000 feet AND traveling faster than 1000 knots. Since phone manufactures didn’t think people would be making phone calls above 60,000 feet, this was the only condition in place to cut off GPS. We worked with Dr. Frank van Diggelen, V.P. of GPS Technology at Broadcom as well as a Consulting Professor at Stanford University, who built a test unit smartphone to work at the high altitudes we achieved, in this case 102,300 feet (31.2 km). Our work led to Broadcom making it standard for their GNSS chips to work above 60,000 ft (provided the GPS speed limit of 1000 knots is maintained), enabling smartphones the ability to track high-altitude flights out of the box.
During the mission, the payload landed in New Hogan Lake, CA. While the team went to frantically procure an inflatable raft before the payload sank, unbeknownst to us a fisherman on the lake picked up the payload and drove off with it, resulting in a wild goose chase for several hours before a successful recovery at the fisherman’s house.
-Google Nexus S Smartphone (Samsung)
-Canon A480 Digital Camera with CHDK firmware
Results were presented at the Institute of Navigation’s (ION) Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) conference in September of 2011 in Portland, Oregon and the academic paper can be found here. This project won “Best Presentation Award” for its session.