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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

  • Craig - Tucson AZ

    How did you figure out how high it got ? Was there an altimeter ?

  • brian

    why do you need the aluminum foil?

  • Steve

    Can you offer any more details or photos on how you connected the router antenna to the Boost Mobile i290? I have the same phone and can’t find anything on the web about how to connect an antenna to it. Your site just said that you connected it to the back, but no photos or other details. We are trying to repeat your success with two balloons – one using the Boost Mobile i290 and one using the SPOT I GPS transmitter. Thanks for your time!

  • Aaron

    I was thinking that you guys should put a polarizing filter on your camera so that it can cut through the haze and make the sky more blue.
    Thank you for reading,

  • Manny

    I have the same question about the phone. I can’t figure out how to attache the antenna unless I get in and solder it onto the internal one, which I have no idea where it is…

  • Craig

    I’m interested in doing this here in the Seattle area. How exactly was your aerial package put together? I might recommend screenshots, step by step, to ensure success.

  • Dave

    How did you prevent condensation/ice from forming on the camera lens?

  • Absolutely brilliant. I much admire your approach to the problem.

    Any thoughts on ultra cheap to orbit solutions?

    Best wishes


  • Ann

    Great Job!!!! Guys!!!! Some corporation should be seeking your employment. Wonderful!!!!


  • Bjorn

    Does the equipment still work(i.e. the phone and the camera)? How could you tell the altitude?

  • Seffo

    Thats a very cool idea!

    Just wondering how you would calculate an approximate landing site? How is it that your vehicle landed only 20 miles away?? You would expect it to return to earth at such an angle that it would end up very far away..

    • Mark

      To calculate the approximate landing location, use the University of Wyoming’s Balloon Trajectory Forecast site at You are incorrect about it landing very far away. Most of these edge-of-space high altitude balloon launches end up landing close to the launch location. Always less than an hour driving distance, and sometimes only a few miles away, depending on the winds at various altitudes at the time of launch.

  • Aaron


    Well, I’m trying to replicate what you did. I purchased a Motorola i290 on ebay for $25 with shipping (a new record in low cost? lol). I’ve purchased a lot of weather balloons, will buy a portable helium tank from WalMart or other local store. I already have several heavy-duty styrofoam containers that my child’s medication comes with every month…I’m building up the supply list! I’m also hoping if this is successful my university might build on it…looks like several places have received grants and include it as part of their curriculum.

    • BOB

      Hey Guys,

      What does the FAA have to say about theses launches?

      Don’t get me wrong…, I think it is cool!
      As a young teenager in the mid 60′s,I hung out at the local air port and observed the local FAA weather man tracking the balloons for weather predictions.

      The radiosons they used was fascinating to me, I even had an old one that I found. It even had the tattered red waxed paper Parachute. The little tag on the radioson with the sticker Property of US Government was cool to read. So you can probably imagine why that this stuff is kinda cool to me.

      OK…, back to my point. Theses things are dangerous to air travel. The risk of eventually bringing down air craft is inevitable in my opinion. The loss of one life not to mention multiple lives is ‘UN-Forgivable…’, For Just the Fun of it all…


      • Mark

        There are simply FAA rules to comply with. All you have to do is keep it under 4 pounds, stay away from restricted airspace, include a radar reflector (i.e. the aluminum foil), and notify the FAA 24 hours before launch plus every 2 hours while it’s in the air with a position report. Let them know when you’re done, and that’s it. The FAA is very cooperative and even supportive of projects like this.

        You could have figured this out yourself with a simple Google search – it’s very easy info to find.

  • Aaron


    Where did you get your software for the camera from, and how does one do this? I’ve thought about simply getting a video or video capable camera as well…but any way I can take photos is good for me….especially for the first launch.

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  • Scott

    I too would like information on this project. Instead of looking at all the informative pages you have posted on this extensive website, I’d rather you post everything I need to do, with pictures and possibly a video or two, in reply to this comment. :)

    Please people, look through the website before asking for help that these wonderfully talented people have already given you for free.

  • Daniel

    Hey, my friend and I are attempting a project similar to your’s and we were wondering where you got your helium???

    • Mark

      Helium and a tank can be rented from a welding supply shop. You might prefer to use hydrogen, since it’s much cheaper. You just have to be mindful of static electricity, since it’s flammable. It’s relatively safe, though.

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  • vignesh

    How is the parachute released? Is it inside the balloon? Because i’m making one and NEEDED to know

    • Mark

      Inside the balloon? How the heck would someone get it inside the balloon?! No, it just hangs out in the open. It doesn’t have to be “released”. While the balloon is rising, it stays closed. The wind from the downward drop makes it open when the balloon pops.

  • pete

    man the guy in Austrlia was alot better … he even recorded heights ! thats what im going to do !! hehe

    • Mark

      What’s “the guy in Australia”? You are aware that there have hundreds of these flights by people all over the world, done dozens of different ways, right? Try Googling “high altitude ballooning”. This isn’t a new or exclusive thing done by only a couple of people, it’s a hobby that many people partake in. It even has a Wikipedia page:

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