The Pi balloon: a Swiss mystery

If you’ve been wondering what happened to PIE, the Raspberry Pi camera-equipped balloon Dave Akerman launched on Saturday (with considerable hinderance from me, Eben and JamesH), Dave’s blogged about the launch and its aftermath. Most exciting of all, for us, was the new record Dave bagged with this balloon: it went even higher than his original Pi in the Sky attempt, and, at 40.35km (that’s a kilometer higher than Felix Baumgartner’s jump last year), now holds the record for the highest pictures transmitted in real time from an amateur device.

Eben, holding AVA, got an unfair head start when we launched by being nearly a foot taller than me (holding PIE).

When I was a very little girl, I was given one of those mylar helium-filled balloons, and lost it almost immediately. I was comforted by my Dad, who told me a new story every day about the country he calculated the ballon must be flying over. Five-year-old me never imagined that one day, I’d get to send up a globetrotting balloon and be able to track it for real.

After flying out across East Anglia, over the North Sea, Netherlands and Germany, PIE ran out of batteries somewhere over Switzerland in the early hours of Sunday morning. Dave believes it probably burst when it reached France later that day and warmed up with the heat of the sun, which will have made the balloon expand and rise. It’s unlikely it’ll be recovered, but we’re hoping some kind soul finds it and responds to the message Dave wrote on the payload. We had a fantastic time following PIE’s adventures, and were particularly tickled when someone in Stuttgart tweeted to let us know that they’d spotted it as it floated near the city!

You can thank Clive for this one.

PIE went up with one of our prototype camera boards, which Dave had switched to the auto setting. It performed brilliantly right up until it got into the stratosphere, when it started having trouble with the very pronounced contrast between the darkness of space and the brightness of the sun. This is something we can address in tuning for later flights, but it did produce a rather wonderful artefact which looked for all the world like a giant Raspberry Pi logo in space. (Sheer serendipity: this wasn’t planned.)

I, for one, welcome our new Raspberry Overlords.

PIE wasn’t the only balloon launched from that muddy field on Saturday. Anthony Stirk  launched AVA, which is the balloon Eben is holding in both pictures above. AVA burst over Austria, and the payload was recovered by a group of local high altitude ballooning (HAB) enthusiasts. And you’d have to be very enthusiastic to go and fetch AVA, because it had landed 1600m up, on the peak of a snowy mountain. The Slovakian team who went up to fetch AVA (equipped with ski poles and a radio antenna) sent back some pictures which were nearly as good as PIE’s pictures from space. Click the photo to visit Anthony’s blog, and to read the whole story.

Slovakian superheroes. From left to right : Peter Vittek, AVA , Radim Mutina (OM2AMR), Juraj Marsalik (OM1AMJ), and behind the camera Brano Janicek.

Alex Eames from RasPi.TV edited the long video stream of the couple of hours around the launch down to…just the exciting bit. (There’s no sound; your speakers aren’t broken!) I am running at the end through sheer excitement, not panic.

JamesH also took some higher-resolution video of the launch, which I’ll add here when it’s available.

I’ll leave you with a picture from Andy Potter, whose message momentarily had me believing that PIE had been spotted from the ground in the Swiss Alps. Thanks to everybody, especially Dave and Anthony, for a great weekend’s ballooning!