Story on FOX, CNN, and ABC

Join our Facebook Group!

Our other websites


phonesetupWe designed a low cost balloon-launch platform that did not require the use of expensive equipment such as radio modems (the total cost of our device did not exceed 150 dollars) or complicated hardware hacking (all of the components of our device were common electronics available off-the-shelf in stores).

The GPS receiver was a Motorola i290 “Boost Mobile” prepaid phone with internet and GPS capability (set up with Accutracking to constantly report its GPS location).

We bought a AA-battery cell phone charger to sustain the phone’s power over the duration of the flight, and we used Energizer lithium batteries (rated to operate at temperatures are low as -40F) to power both this charger as well as our camera.

As a further safeguard against electronic/battery failure due to low temperature, we utilitzed Coleman disposable hand warmers (placed near our electronics) to help keep our equipment warm in the cold of the stratosphere.

We loaded a Canon A470 camera (bought used on Amazon) with CHDK open source software to enable a feature which allowed the camera to take pictures continuously (intervalometer). Using this feature, we set the camera to take a picture every 5 seconds at a 1/800 second shutter speed. With an 8GB card, the camera was able to chronicle the whole journey of the balloon from launch to retrieval. (~5 hours)

Equipment Used in the Launch Capsule
Sounding Balloon 350g from Kaymont350g~$20 +$20 (helium)
Motorola i290 Prepaid Cellphone~90g,~$50**
Styrofoam Beer Cooler~15g~$0
Duct Tape~10g~$0
Zip Ties~5g~$0
Canon A470 with 8GB SD card~165g,~$40***
Insulation material- newspaper~5g~$0
Duracell USB phone charger powered by AA batteries~20g 1oz~$10
Instant Hand warmer~5g~$2****
4 Ultimate Lithium AA batteries~15g * 4 = 60 g~$5
Radar Reflector (aluminum foil)~0g~$0
Total~800g, /w misc.~$150

* Two things:
(1) We had one of these laying around, so we’re actually a little unclear about how much it would cost to get a plastic parachute  with strings, but we can’t imagine it would be that much. However, we actually created a second launch vehicle using a trash bag as a parachute, so that is one way people could probably cut costs.
(2) It may not even be necessary to attach a parachute. For instance, I think that a large number of streamers dangling off the back of the box might provide enough drag to slow it down to a comparable landing speed.

** Some people have told us (and we have confirmed after some searching online) that the cost of the cell phone (usable for a similar launch) can actually go as low as $30. We paid $50 for ours though.

*** This was a lucky grab for us. One can do the same with a 4GB SD card with picture intervals of 10s each, and that will save you about $10. You can find cheap cameras on ebay or Amazon (used). You probably want to send a used one up anyways, considering the harsh conditions it will be subject to.

**** A packet of 6 handwarmers can be bought for ~$5 from Target. We used two handwarmers for our launch, one pressed against the camera and one pressed against the cell phone.

***** Many people have asked about the antenna in our pictures. It was an extra part from a used wireless router. However, i don’t actually think it’s necessary to have one (and in our second vehicle, we actually didn’t add the antenna.) As long as the cell phone can report its location after landing, one should be okay.

255 comments to Hardware

  • Dave

    Hey guys,

    I’ve been studying your project, as well as other hobbyist’s projects, and am amazed at your simplistic approach. Most of these other guys are using COM’s, Radio Modems, Servos, etc… I love your design and your images were amazing! I am working on my own project now and my inspiration comes again from your project as well as others. After my first successful project I plan to build more complex devices to send into “Near Space”.

    Anyway, I was thinking of using a phone I already have. It a Samsung Blackjack II and is compatible with the Accutrack software. However, I’m afraid that this phone may use a bit more battery power than the Motorola i290 (I am also looking to buy one of those.)

    Anyway, my question is this; without remote controls for the camera what would be the best settings as far as focus/Aperture/Quality (In MegaPixels)? Also, are devices available that I can place in the “box” and send up to record Air Speed, Temperature, Air Pressure, Etc.? I know this can be done using COM’s but I’m looking for a “cheap” way to achieve the same.

    Thanks for sharing your idea and your images, I hope to see further projects posted from you guys in the future.


  • Dave


    I know have all of the same equipment that you guys used for the ICARUS project. A few things are really confusing me though. I’m using the same camera with CHDK Complete for the 1.12c firmware and the Ultra-Intervlometer Script.

    Question 1: Did you guys extend the zoom in/out at all before launch?
    Question 2: I wouldn’t imagine a need for a flash, did you guys use the flash?
    Question 3: How did you “mount” the camera inside of the cooler?
    Question 4: On the camera, did you use the “Widescreen” quality setting or
    did you set it to 7 Megapixels?
    Question 5: You used Lithium batteries; were they E2 Lithium or Ultimate
    Lithium Batteries?

    The first 4 questions are my main concern though. Any advice would be much appreciated. I plan to launch this Saturday (June 12th, 2010).


  • GPS receiver was a Motorola thanx;)

  • Oscar

    Hi guys: I’m a science teacher in Honduras planning to organize my class around this project. GPS has not quiet caught on in the country yet (at an affordable price), so I was wondering if retrieval could be done without it. What do you think? Also, I’m unclear on whether the energizer batteries were enough to power the camera up and down the journey.

  • [...] What is amazing about this story is that the total cost of their spacecraft was $148. You can check out their list of items and costs on their site, [...]

  • Hans

    Lol why use such an antenne for GPS, your only getting closer to the sattelites…

    • Melissa

      I believe the antennae is for the cell signal, not GPS. Trying to maintain cell contact as much as possible so as to be able to retrieve as much real-time GPS data as possible…

  • [...] Shuttle, ISS of satelliet aan te pas. De studenten slaagden erin de totale kosten voor hun project onder de 150 dollar (zo’n 115 euro) te houden. En het had nog goedkoper gekund, als ze voor een goedkoper mobieltje [...]

  • Evan


    for all of you who are wondering how the students hooked the antenna to the phone, i know how, so until i am able to post pics email me at

  • Leon

    how do u guys do these? can give me the steps in making this? one more question, how far does ur balloon landed from the launching site and how do u make it land without making the balloon itself to travel very far from the place that u launch? please tell me how because i’m really interested in making this.

  • Brent

    How can you justify helium costing you ~$20? Every gas supply company that I’ve checked is charging ~$200+ for a cylinder???

  • Sydney R.

    I am a member of a space engineering class. We have built a successful space craft using a weather balloon, a camera, and an arduino board. We are currently only reaching low altitudes and have been tethering our launches, but our goal is to expand to an untethered launch. Although we are planning to use an autonomous vehicle to retrieve our hardware, we also are interested in using telemetry to retrieve our data (photos, video, temperature,pressure) while our balloon is in space. What kind of telemetry can we use to collect data from our weather balloon spacecraft and receive it on earth?

  • harsh

    how many cubic feet did your baloon hold?

  • Nick

    Can I use a cell phone that is not gps enabled? Thanks

  • How parachute would open? how to attach it to balloon? These are things that concerns me

  • Christian

    Hello, i want to know how can i connect an external GPS antenna as you did, on a Motorola I290 cell phone.

    I have download a dismount manual , and it seems to be connected into rf part.-

    Kind regards.-

  • Anonymous

    how far away did it land from the launch site?

  • how far away from the launch site did it land and what was the total flight time?

  • My son will be so happy that I found this site hes been begging me to help him make one of these, thanks so much!! :)

  • Tom

    Why did you need a data plan for the cell phone? All you need is to write a Java program to run on the cell phone that would text the coordinates to another cell phone. This would squeeze out another few dollars in savings. I’m not a Java programmer, but I’ve already seen Java code that performs similar functionality. It should really be a very easy piece of small code to write.

Leave a Reply to » Blog Archive » Start Your Own Space Program for $148 - A How-to Site for Photography and Photoshop




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>