The coast of northern Scotland taken during last year’s competition.  (Credit: Barry Fraser, Cameron Fraser)

The Global Space Balloon Challenge

During the course of one weekend in April last year 60 different teams, hailing from 18 countries, and 6 continents, flew balloons to the edge of space in the first ever Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC).

The people who built the balloons came from all walks of life—from elementary schools students in the States, to university students in Brazil, and enthusiastic amateurs from places as far flung as Hong Kong and Australia.

The winner of “Best Picture” from the 2014 competition went to photographer John Flaig, who captured this incredible image over Colorado. (Credit: John Flaig)

The winner of “Best Picture” from the 2014 competition went to photographer John Flaig, who captured this incredible image over Colorado. (Credit: John Flaig)

For some it was the first time they had built, launched, and recovered their own high-altitude balloons, whilst others were veterans with tens, or even hundreds, of balloon launches.

With broad challenge categories such as “Best Design,” and “Best Experiment,” the teams competing in last year’s challenge had a great deal of room to experiment.

One team's balloon bursting at 84,177 ft captured by the onboard camera (Credit: Ballongineers)

One team’s balloon bursting at 84,177 ft captured by the onboard camera (Credit: Ballongineers)

Registration for this year’s competition—also to be held in April—has just opened, and so far 160 teams in 41 countries have signed up to take part.

“It’s a surreal feeling when you look at pictures of the black of space and curvature of the Earth, knowing that those came from a payload you built,”  David Gerson, President and Co-Founder of the GSBC

Teams will again compete for prizes in categories such as “Highest Altitude” and “Best Design,” and for those returning for a second year with themselves—the altitude record set last year was by NC Near Space Research’s NSL-20 flight which exceeded 43.2 km (approximately 142,000 ft) in altitude.

With tutorials and community forums to help beginners get started, and unlike traditional space projects—even with a free launch thrown in by NASA a modestly built CubeSat can cost tens of thousands of dollars—it’s easy for teams to get started. For around $500, and a few weekends of work, a team with no prior experience can send a package to the edge of space.

The majority of last year’s teams built their payloads using an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi, or smartphones and tablets with data-logging applications. They used off-the-shelf GPS units, and cameras hacked with high-capacity batteries, and they held it all together with 3D printed parts and miles of gaffer tape.

Organised by volunteers at universities and in the aerospace industry this year’s challenge is shaping up to be a larger event than last year. The people that took last year’s challenge, whether they were beginners or high-altitude veterans, were makers like you. Do you have what it takes to join them?

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

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