Friday, July 22, 2011



Problem: DINO 1 landed in a heavy foliaged tree line, over 70 feet up in the air.  It pretty much landed in the tallest tree in the tree line.  What was even more insulting, was that this particular tree line separated two pre-plowed farm fields (one around 20 acres, the other around 70 acres).  Just my luck…

I cannot stress this enough, if your capsule lands in a tree at this height, with the nearest, climbable branch starting at 20 feet, save your money and just hire a Professional Tree Trimmer/Climber.  They will safely get the capsule down for a reasonable price.  Don’t waste your money like I did with other unconventional methods (I don’t even want to think about all the gas money from making multiple trips to the retrieval point).

The capsule was stuck in the tree for exactly 15 days.  I went to the landing site 8 days out of the 15 and tried to get this thing down with the help of multiple friends (Spoiler Alert: None of our ideas worked).  Daylight was also our enemy, since most days we couldn’t get out to the spot until late afternoon.

Trip 1: Launch Day

We brought a 15 foot ladder and a 10 feet piece of PVC pipe, you know, to get it out of a tree if needed.  There was nothing more defeating than seeing the capsule dangling in the wind 70 feet up in the air.  Going home empty-handed after a long, hot day was a huge letdown for everyone.

After pulling an all-nighter preparing DINO 1 for launch, my brain, along with everyone else’s, was fried.  But I didn’t sleep too well knowing that the thing I worked on for the past three months was 20 miles away with only the moonlight as company.

The ideas started coming, it was like a race against the clock, seeing that with each trip to the landing site money would be lost, materials would be wasted and gas would be used.  Thank goodness Jerry Belcher and his family were so generous.  They let my crew park time and time again in their driveway (since their house was the nearest point to the tree line, it kind of became our retrieval headquarters).  Even their dogs, Hank and Copper would come out to help every time we were there.

Trip 2: PVC Pipe and Dowel Rods Take 1

The plan was to build a nearly 100 feet line of connected PVC pipes (with dowel rods inserted as we went, for extra strength), shimmy it up through the branches which would help support the rig (PVC pipes get unmanageable after about 15 feet up in the air).  And then, through a means of hooks and hangers attached to the end PVC piece, pull the capsule down to the ground. 

Well, working directly under the canopy proved impossible (the undergrowth was too thick) you couldn’t even see the cooler.

So it was quickly realized we would have to tackle this thing from the side.  We were going to have to find something to hoist the PVC rig up to the first branch (20 feet up) and build the thing as we went, but we didn’t really have the necessary equipment to get a line that high at the time.

Trip 3: PVC Pipe and Dowel Rods Take 2

My friend Jeff and I returned the next trip with his compound bow.  The plan now was to shoot an arrow (with string attached) over the tree line and use the newly made pulley system to get our PVC rig up and running.  After several carefully placed shots, it became clear that the counterbalance weight of the arrow was not going to be heavy enough to gravitate down to the other side of the tree line.  

The arrow also had the task of having to clear enough branches on the descent for us to grab it on the other side.  Plus, the arrows kept getting stuck in the branches…then we both realized this was a golden opportunity.

Since we had a string attached to the arrow, which kept getting stuck in branch clusters near the capsule, we began pulling the string from the ground making the canopy sway slightly from side to side.  After no luck, we realized that since the arrow was getting ridiculously harder and harder to retrieve from the clusters, we could use this as an anchor point.

Now it became a race against the setting sun.  We quickly began feeding the attached line through the PVC pipe rig on the ground.  As Jeff applied tension to the line by pulling in the opposite direction of the tree, I pushed the PVC pipes up on our guided track.  I still can’t believe we got this thing off the ground with only the two of us there, it was truly an amazing feat.

We got it up, right next to the capsule (using the PVC pipes as a measurement tool, the capsule was up 70 feet, no exaggeration here), but the rig was just too unstable to hook anything.  We couldn’t even see what we were trying to hook at the height.  The line eventually snapped, the rigged came crashing down and just like that, we were back to square one.

Trip 4: When in Doubt, Use Firearms…

Jeff and I returned again and this time the plan was a little bit simpler, shoot the line down coming from the capsule and let gravity take over the rest.  The lines were extremely tangled. 

Jeff did manage to snap one of the lines (even with the windy conditions) and weakened the canopy by snapping off branches in the surrounding area.  But at the end of the day, the capsule remained stuck and we did the walk of shame once more back to the truck.

Trip 5: Scouting Report 1

Luckily a storm rolled through later that week, so my Dad and I met up with my cousin’s husband Mark and we all drove out to the spot to see if the thing fell by the sheer force of nature.  Well, a top portion of the tree did come off (probably due to Jeff’s weakening of the surrounding branches and the thunderstorm), but the capsule only dropped (at the most) 3-4 feet. 

Trip 6: Scouting Report 2

After a few more windy days, my brother David and I decided to take a look once more.  Still no luck, the capsule was built to last, and this thing wasn’t going anywhere for the next 20 years.

Trip 7: Crossbow & Compound Bow Time

I finally made the decision to cut my losses with the parachute.  So I told the crew to just snag the parachute via an arrow (with string attached) and pull the thing down to the ground since the capsule was still attached to the chute.  For this trip, Beau would bring his crossbow into the mix and Jeff would return with his compound bow. 

My brother and I would try every other idea (queue the baseball attached to a rope). 

We all failed.  It’s a straight up shot, and when arrows are attached to a 100 feet string, they tend to not stay on target.  Walk of shame again...

Trip 8: Professional Tree Climber
Since the beginning, I wanted to hire a tree trimming company but thought I could do it cheaper myself…lesson learned.   Enough was enough, after a few calls, I got a hold of a local Tree Climber and within an hour as the sun was nearly set...

Terry got it down…amazing.


If you are planning on attempting this type of project, you should carefully read the most updated list of FAA Regulations (e-CFR Title 14, Part 101) concerning unmanned free balloons.  Even if you build your capsule under their guidelines and technically speaking it would not be regulated by the FAA, it is still in good nature to contact them before launching your balloon to avoid any misunderstandings.


One of the pieces of information you’ll need before you do contact the FAA is a trajectory forecast.  Luckily, people from the University of Wyoming (who are way smarter than me) have developed an easy to use online trajectory calculator.  The only work I had to do was pick an acceptable launch point and get the coordinates (there ARE guidelines as to where you can launch your capsule, i.e. away from airports, military bases, flight paths, etc. Contact the FAA for more information).

Then, all you have to do is enter in the latitude and longitude of your launch point (wind patterns will become your best friend when determining a launch point, so study hard) and the calculator does the rest, giving you a fairly accurate point of impact.

There is an option to select different times (via a drop-down box) for more specific forecasts, but be careful when reading the times.  The website runs off Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) which is closely related to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).  Times are listed as military time in accordance to what they would be in Greenwich, London.  Meaning, if you select the 18Z, the time of the projected forecast would be 6pm over in Greenwich, London.  I live in the Eastern Time Zone (ET) in the United States.  We are 5 hours behind Greenwich, London, meaning the 18Z time would be 1pm here.  I pretty much wanted to launch around this time anyway, so I always picked this option when making calculations.  Here’s a graph I put together to show how accurate the Balloon Trajectory Forecast site was for the DINO 1 capsule:


Small Styrofoam Cooler (Emerson Ecologics)

Styrofoam coolers are obviously the go-to choice.  They’re lightweight, they don’t cost much and they even have some degree of floatability.  Many use the typical Styrofoam coolers bought at a local department store, but I found a couple of problems I didn’t like.  First, you’ll notice that most Styrofoam coolers have that upside down trapezoid shape.  I wanted something more rectangular so if I chose to mount the camera on the side, it could be flush.  And second, these coolers are not exactly air tight.

That’s where Emerson Ecologics comes to the rescue.  You can order these coolers online right off the company’s website.  These rectangular coolers are made for transporting medical supplies so the lid is designed for an air tight seal.  Now clearly, the final capsule will have many holes in it from the multiple zip ties and camera hole, but every little bit helps.  I wanted to make this container as water resistant as I could, and cut down any unnecessary leaks of air when trying to regulate the inside temperature.

60-inch Pilot Parachute (Aerocon Systems)

It’s a rule of thumb that your payload should hit the ground at about 15 fps (10.23 mph) or slower for a safe landing.  Aerocon Systems has a great Descent Rate Calculator on their website where you can find out how big of parachute you’ll need for your capsule.  Because of FAA rules and regulations the capsule has to be less than 4 pounds, so for a 4lb cooler to land safely, the calculator said I needed a 56-inch parachute.

So, what next?  Well, a lot of people make their own parachute and there are those who suggest (theoretically) that you don’t even need a parachute as the shredded balloon should provide enough drag.  Also, from what I’ve seen in similar projects, it always seems that the parachute doesn’t even work properly (gets tangled up) and only a few people actually use the correct sized parachute.  However, given safety and investment reasons, I still wanted a well-crafted parachute.

The parachute was by far the most difficult thing to find online.  I finally came across people who were using Military Surplus parachutes for payload recovery.  These things work well because they are the real deal (no flimsy, model parachute here).  I ended up with a 60-inch Pilot Parachute from Aerocon Systems (remember, you need around a 56-inch parachute but that is a difficult size to find). 

Aercocon offers two different types of 60-inch parachutes.  I went with the Green/White pilot chute, originally used by US Army Airborne skydivers (to pull the reserve parachute).  I chose this design because it features a mesh casing that encloses the suspension lines, virtually eliminating the chance of the chute tangling.

However, I did have a couple worries:

1.     The parachute may work too well and create so much drag that I might have to drive forever to recover the capsule.

2.    The final layout/order of items prior to launch is (from top to bottom) the Balloon-Parachute-Payload.  Meaning that the balloon is attached with a string to the parachute which carries the Payload via another string.  Most people run a string from the center of the parachute’s canopy up to the balloon.  However, this parachute doesn’t have the typical loop/hole on top of the canopy.  And I wasn’t too fond of cutting a hole in my parachute so I decided on a slightly different setup.  There’s a loop where all the suspension lines meet at the bottom of the parachute so I attached both strings (one up to the balloon, one down to the capsule) to this anchor point.

Kaymont 800 Gram Totex Sounding Balloon

Well, initially I wanted a bigger balloon, but the 800 gram model was the largest balloon Kaymont had in stock, which I gladly took.  I advise calling these guys only when you have a good grasp of what this project entails, because when you’re well-versed they are very informative and will gladly give suggestions (you can tell they get a lot of calls from amateur hobbyists who are sending a camera into near-space via a Styrofoam cooler).  They’ll take your order right over the phone too.

119 Cubic Feet (with nozzle) Helium Tank 

Once you have your balloon you want to use from Kaymont, simply use their very helpful graph* to convert the volume at release from cubic meters into cubic feet (1 cubic meter = 35.31 cubic feet).  This will tell you how much helium you’ll need the day of the launch.  Since I chose the 800 gram model, the graph says the volume at release is 1.76 cubic meters, meaning I would need at least 63 cubic feet of helium. 

*Keep in mind that some calculations from Kaymont’s Sounding Balloon graph are based off a certain payload weight, so if you’re payload weighs more or less than 250 grams, you’ll have different numbers when it comes to things like bursting altitude.  For example, the DINO 1 capsule (with parachute) weighed in around 1228 grams (2.707 pounds).  And although the 800 Gram Totex Sounding Balloon’s bursting altitude is estimated around 106,955 feet, the Kaymont guys projected my height more toward 90,000 feet because of the weight difference.  So the heavier you make your capsule, the more altitude you’re going to lose. 

Now, Helium prices vary depending on where you live.  If you live in a well-populated area, chances are the price will be lower to rent a tank than say a rural area.  I highly recommend calling a lot of places about obtaining the helium (party stores, event planners, party rental companies, commercial gas companies, welding gas supply companies, etc.) in order to get the best price.  Most people don’t like getting helium from a party store (i.e. Party City) because the gas is a mixture of helium and not pure, making for a slower ascent.  Plus, it is hard to gauge the amount you’re getting because those type of stores usually only carry the generic small, medium and jumbo sizes (also, there is no specific label on these types of tanks which makes it very hard for store employees to guess how much cubic feet the tank is). 

Here are some reoccurring themes that developed after I called around 20 places for helium:

Most places require a ridiculous deposit (sometimes double the cost of the tank rental itself).

Some places don’t have the option to rent a balloon fill nozzle/valve that is required for this particular setup.

And quite frankly, a lot of people I talked to over the phone were very rude. Guess they didn’t want my business…done. Word of advice: If you call a company and they act like you’re wasting their time, take your dollar elsewhere, I guarantee there are other stores in your area that would be more than happy to hear from you.

So in the end, I went with a company that my brother tracked down in Columbus, Ohio who were nice enough to skip the deposit charge and offered the necessary balloon fill nozzle.  I rented a 119 cubic feet tank which is a pretty standard size, since most places’ lesser tanks are not enough for the project (so you might have to get a larger tank than you anticipated).  A larger tank was also beneficial since on the day of launch we didn’t have a hose setup for the nozzle (most hobbyists create their own hose setup to minimize any leaks, filling the balloon up faster), which resulted in us wasting a lot more helium when trying to fill the balloon to the approximate diameter.

And yes, you can use hydrogen but it is strongly discouraged because hydrogen is very flammable and dangerous…helium is not.  So unless you are well-trained in handling hydrogen, stick with helium.

So how did we measure how much helium we were putting into the balloon the day of the launch if we didn’t have a gauge?  We didn’t.  Instead, we used a common technique with a plain old milk jug filled with water.  Obviously, you want enough helium to lift your payload and parachute.  So after you know the final weight of those items, fill an empty milk jug with water to that exact combined weight.  However you’re not done yet, the general consensus is that you should have around one pound of extra lift in order to get to the desired ascent rate.  So add another pound of water to the milk jug (on top of the weight of the payload and parachute).

Then it’s trial and error, keep filling the balloon to something that resembles 5 feet in diameter, carefully remove it from the nozzle, tie a secured, temporary knot and test it on the milk jug of water.  Repeat until the jug is completely lifted off the ground by the balloon (it’s helpful to have multiple people for this part, so your balloon doesn’t slip from anyone’s hands and fly away).  Once it can lift the jug, then it’s time for the real deal knots (see the Everbilt Mason Twine #18 x 500' description for the actual knots used).

GoPro’s HD HERO Camera Naked
          + Battery BacPac
          + Anti-Fog Inserts
          + Centon 32GB SDHC Card Class 10

The reasons behind using this particular camera are pretty simple:

1.    GoPro was the first brand to come to mind when doing this project.

2.    Coincidentally, this is the exact camera that other near space hobbyists have used so I knew it would work under the extreme conditions, leaving out the, “I wonder if this other brand camera could work?” dilemma.

Leaving out anything to chance is always a good thing.  So once I knew this camera has been used before by others in the same situation, it was a no brainer.  I’m sure other cameras will be better in the future, but for right now, I like this one the best.

This specific camera was also used because of the 1080p (30 fps) capability.  At first I was going to use the 720p (60 fps) setting (same data size), but during camera testing, I didn’t notice that big of difference especially for the material that would be shot.  Don’t get me wrong, frame rate is always important, but once the camera gets passed the thermal winds, the capsule will stabilize and the footage will become less turbulent.  So I went with higher resolution rather than frame rate (Note: In the end, it didn’t matter because the footage was hazy due to factors that will be fixed in the next launch, see the Future Improvements section below).

Battery BacPac: Another great thing about using this brand is that GoPro now has the Battery BacPac, which attaches to the back of the camera, allowing double the recording time.  The camera, by itself, is supposed to provide 2.5 hours of recording time.  So, theoretically with the BacPac attached, the recording time should increase to 5 hours.  However, during my preliminary testing with the BacPac attached, the camera’s full recording time was more around 3 hours and 45 minutes (even with the max 32GB memory card in it).  On the day of launch, the camera’s TRT was just above 3 hours 48 minutes (the actual flight time was around 3 hours and 10 minutes).  Therefore, if you want the most space footage, and video of the descent/landing, I highly suggest getting the GoPro Battery BacPac. 

Centon 32GB SDHC Card Class 10: So, if you decide to go with the maximum recording time for this camera, you’re going to need the highest capacity memory card allowed which is a 32GB SD card.  I went with Centon’s 32GB SDHC Card, because it was the lowest priced 32GB card I could find that offered a very good write speed (Class 10).

Anti-Fog Inserts: Now what are these Anti-Fog inserts?  Well, through my research, I notice a lot of people fell victim to hazy video/pictures of their near-space adventure (due to the vast temperature difference as the capsule ascends, causing the lens to fog up, hindering the imagery).  On top of that, I was very worried (especially with my luck) that this thing was going to land in water.  So, I bought these inserts from GoPro and I used the waterproof door (air tight) the day of launch.  Turns out, the temperature difference from inside the camera housing and the outside surrounding air was just too much for the little inserts to take (you can directly see this evidence in the footage of DINO I, once the capsule clears the cloud line). 

As a result, learn from my mistakes and don’t bother buying the Anti-Fog Inserts.  Not to say they don’t work.  I would hate to see our footage without them, it would have been nothing but cloudy colors, but I think I got a better solution for this project (see the Future Improvements section below).

SPOT Personal Tracker
           + Basic Service Plan - 1 Year
           + Additional Service - Track Progress

The SPOT Personal Tracker was ideal for tracking down the capsule because its reliability is not dependent on cell phone signal coverage.  For cost reasons, most weather balloon hobbyists use a cell phone based type of GPS which works great if your capsule happens to land in the cell phone’s coverage area.  However, if there’s no cell phone signal in the landing area then the unit cannot transmit the coordinates so your only chance in finding the capsule is hoping someone contacts you via the found note.

It should be noted that a lot of people make their own GPS module, but the purpose of this mission was to show how anyone could build/buy the materials.  Now the SPOT Personal Tracker is by no means the cheapest method but it does provide a greater chance at recovery because it solely uses satellites to track its position.  Beacons are also something I looked into, but they are VERY expensive and quite frankly looked way too heavy for the four pound limit of the capsule.

Now, the SPOT Personal Tracker itself retails for around $100.  I got a used one off ebay for $58 (including shipping).  After buying the unit, you’ll need to activate it on SPOT’s website, which for a 1 Year Basic Service Plan runs about $100.  Then you’ll need to purchase the Additional Service called, “Track Progress,” for around $50.  This feature is necessary because it allows the unit to operate independently. 

You see, this thing is made for people who hike, boat, etc. in the event that they might need emergency assistance.  They can then push a button and have first responders at their location in no time.  It is also used to show family members and friends the location of your travels by pushing an OK button (kind of like a check-in status).  However, we don’t have the ability to keep pushing a button every 10 minutes on something that is floating in the sky.  Luckily for us, they provide the “Track Progress” feature which automatically transmits the GPS location every 10 minutes to a public/private webpage that shows the coordinates in near real-time on a map.

Now there are federal laws that block GPS devices when they reach a height of 60,000 feet, creating an almost, “dead zone” as your capsule ascends into near-space.  However, on the descent the unit should resume transmitting your data.  The hope is that on your launch day, your capsule transmits a couple of coordinates before this dead zone so you can kind of figure out the directional flight path.  Then, you’ll have a general idea on where to start driving and be ready when the unit sends its descending coordinates.

Obviously, where you travel may not have internet capabilities so it’s a good idea to have someone at a landline internet connection (viewing your SPOT webpage) giving you the coordinates over the phone.

The SPOT Personal Tracker was also chosen for this mission because of its rugged operating temperature range (-45C to 85C) and humidity rating (in the event of a water landing).  And remember, you MUST use Lithium Batteries.  We chose Energizer Ultimate Lithium Batteries because of the proclaimed operating temperatures (-40C to 60C) and they are lightweight.

Motorola i296 (iDEN Series)
           + Boost Mobile Pay As You Go Phone Plan
           + AccuTracking - Package 1 (GPS Tracking Service)
           + Duracell My Pocket Charger (for Motorola phones)

Even with the reliability of the SPOT Personal Tracker, I still wanted a backup GPS option since losing hundreds of dollars of equipment isn’t very enticing.  So I chose the most popular route from other near space enthusiasts and decided on a cheap pay-as you-go cell phone.  As far as the program, I had it down to either AccuTracking ($5.99/month with the first month free) or InstaMapper (Free), but I ultimately chose AccuTracking because I simply liked the interface better. 

AccuTracking was also initially picked because it records altitude measurements.  Unfortunately, I didn’t learn until AFTER the mission that AccuTracking caps at 19,853 feet.  This means that after the capsule got above that specific height, the remaining measurements were recorded with the same 19,853 feet entry.  So, if you want a definite record of the actual altitude achieved, I suggest a different method.  However, the phone still worked great as a backup GPS.

As I stated before federal laws do block the phone from transmitting this data when it reaches a height of 60,000 feet, but the GPS coordinates themselves will still be stored on the phone when the capsule is recovered (as I have learned from other people’s trials). 

Once again, a lot of people build their own devices to collect data like altitude, temperature, etc. but we wanted something anyone could do.  Now there are things like Shadow Box (The Personal 3D Sports Recorder) but it is VERY expensive and I wanted to keep this project somewhat reasonable for obtaining HD video of near space.

So it’s pretty simple:

-Buy a compatible AccuTracking cell phone (list on their website)

-Activate the phone with whatever provider is associated with the phone (in this case it was Boost Mobile, they don’t have great coverage at all where I live, but it was the cheapest pay-as-you-go option)

-Choose an unlimited web/data plan (in this case the cheapest method was the 35¢/day for unlimited web usage under the Pay As You Go Plan)

-Then follow the directions on AccuTracking’s website on how to get the program onto your phone

Duracell My Pocket Charger: I wanted to extend the battery life of the phone so I bought the Duracell My Pocket Charger for Motorola phones which uses two AA batteries.  And again, you MUST use Lithium Batteries.  Now, Duracell no longer sells this power reserve (they have switched to rechargeable, encased batteries) so I obtained mine on eBay.

It’s worth mentioning that I did forget to plug this into the phone the day of the launch (I’m human, I make mistakes) and the phone was still sending out coordinates until 10:00 that night.  It was also set on a 1 minute interval for sending coordinates (this feature can be accessed under the Accutracking settings on your phone) which is even more impressive.  So I don’t know if it was just dumb luck or what, but the phone lasted 10 hours on its own battery (no external Pocket Charger) while sending GPS data every minute…I was shocked too.  So in the end, you might not even need this item if you use the i296, but it wouldn’t hurt.

And don’t be scared the day of the launch when the phone stops sending coordinates much earlier than say that of the SPOT Personal Tracker or that 60,000 mark.  This is completely normal and the phone (if it lands in coverage) will resume transmitting after the landing.  You’ll just have a head start if you use the SPOT.  You see, I thought my phone died long before it even took off (and not plugging in the external charger probably didn’t help matters), but upon returning home I saw I was still receiving coordinates from the phone, it just took a lot longer. 

Miscellaneous Items

Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA 4-pack

Regular batteries aren’t going to cut it for this project (quite simply, they won’t work up in near space).  Energizer Ultimate Lithium Batteries are made to operate in harsh conditions (-40C to 60C), so even when they are subjected to extreme atmospheric temperatures, they’ll work like a charm.  You’ll need a 4-pack if you are following this setup (two for the SPOT Personal Tracker and two for the Duracell My Pocket Charger).

Everbilt Mason Twine #18 x 500'
This is the line from the weather balloon to the parachute:

Balloon > Everbilt Mason Twine (~10 feet) > Parachute >  SecureLine Nylon Rope (~7 feet) > Payload

Although this particular twine is not pound tested, it is really strong and a lot thinner than the rope we used connecting the parachute to the payload (it is much easier to tie a balloon with thinner string).  FAA Regulations state you cannot have anything stronger than a 50 pound line, this rope meet that requirement. 

We tied the filled balloon with this rope exactly like the suggested technique by International Met Systems’ youtube video (simply search for, “InterMetsystemsBalloon” on YouTube, their instructional balloon inflation video should show up in the results).  Then, for extra assurance, a Taut-Line Hitch Knot was applied to the balloon, followed by a simple Overhand Knot in the tag end. 

Then after measuring around 10 feet of the line and cutting it, the Mason Twine was tied to the parachute’s fish eye loop (as mentioned earlier in the Parachute description) using another Taut-Line Hitch Knot and one last Overhand Knot in the tag end. 

The knots and excess line were then duct taped for extra strength.

SecureLine Diamond Braided Rope 40 lbs. 1/8" x 48'

This is the line from the parachute to the payload:

Balloon > Everbilt Mason Twine (~10 feet) > Parachute > SecureLine Nylon Rope (~7 feet) > Payload

Now this rope is pound tested, 40 pounds, which falls under the restrictions of the FAA.  I wanted a stronger rope from the parachute to the payload, so if something were to happen to the balloon line, we would still have a safe descent because there was no way this rope was going to break. 

I decided on a length of around 7 feet.  I then used Arbor Knots on both ends of the line (to the parachute and to the bracket located in the underbelly of the lid), followed by simple Figure 8 Knots in the tag ends (see the GE Double Rocker Wallplate description for more details on how this line was tied to the bracket).

NIBCO 1/2" CPVC CTS Male Adapter
When researching this project, nobody was clear on how they tied the string to their capsule.  A Styrofoam cooler doesn’t exactly have any secure points of attachment.  So I came up with the idea of cutting a hole in the top of lid, running the string through that hole and then tying the string to an attached plastic bracket underneath (evenly displacing the force created by the lift of the helium, creating less stress on the capsule).

Well, after testing this idea, I found that the abrasive string would tear the soft Styrofoam around the hole when harsh wind conditions were recreated.  So, I went to The Home Depot and bought a little 1/2” pipe adapter that could screw into the hole preventing any further tearing of the fragile Styrofoam.  It worked perfectly.
As far as a size for the hole, I printed out various sized circles (can’t remember exact dimensions, I accidently pitched them later on) from Photoshop and taped them to thin pieces of cardboard.  Then, starting with the smallest circle, I traced the design onto the center or the top lid and followed the guideline with the StyroCutter.  I repeated this process (increasing the size of the hole) until I got a snug fit when I tried to screw in the 1/2” pipe adapter which would skip the need for glue.

If you do use glue, you have to use specific glue made for Styrofoam.  Now, I didn’t use any glue for the capsule (there was no need), but I did buy Beacon’s Hold the Foam! (Glue for Styrofoam) from Michaels just in case.

GE Double Rocker Wallplate

Next, I needed a lightweight, plastic bracket where the string (specifically the SecureLine Nylon Diamond  Braided Rope) could be attached.  Light switch wallplates seemed liked the perfect idea, nothing fancy from The Home Depot, just a simple, plastic one from Walmart will do.  The GE Double Rocker Wallplate offered three anchor points I could attach the string too (in case one of the brackets broke). 

As I mentioned before, I used Anchor Knots and Figure 8 Knots (in the tag ends) to tie the string to the bracket.  More specifically, I left a good amount of slack so that I could tie each knot set (an Arbor Knot finished with a Figure 8 Knot) to each, “bridge” of the bracket.  Creating an almost triple safe situation, where if one bridge broke (due to too much tension), the entire rig would fall back to the next bridge, and so on, hopefully preventing the capsule from detaching in the air.

After all the knots were made, the bracket was then zip tied to the lid through the screw holes in the wallplate.

I want to note, that being proactive, I still wasn’t completely satisfied with this setup.  I wanted to develop one last failsafe for the equipment to rely on in case the force was just too great (which is extremely unlikely, but you never know).  So, I used the thinner Everbilt Mason Twine to tie the GoPro camera to the SPOT Personal Tracker and then finally up to the last piece of slack from the main rope (the SecureLine Nylon Diamond  Braided Rope) coming off the bracket.  That way, if some freakish force ripped through the Styrofoam causing the capsule to separate, at least the camera and main GPS unit would be saved by floating down with the main line attached to the parachute.

Styrofoam Brand Foam Diorama Kit

I simply bought this kit for an extra section of Styrofoam, so that I could cut out a piece to wedge the camera into place by pushing the GoPro up against the hole.  If the capsule flipped upside down repeatedly, there was less of chance of the camera budging from its tethered down position (via cable ties).

StyroCutter Plus by FloraCraft

Although it is not necessary, this hot wire tool will making cutting the holes in the Styrofoam cooler ridiculously easy.  Especially the tricky camera hole because due to the fisheye lens of the GoPro, you’ll need extra room on the camera’s left side so that its view is not obstructed by portions of the cut cooler.  The clean cuts will also give the capsule a more professional feel too. 

GE 650 Assorted Cable Ties

The GoPro, SPOT Personal Tracker, Boost Mobile Phone, Duracell Pocket Charger and Double Rocker Wallplate were all secured to the cooler with these various cable/zip ties.  The slots for the zip ties to go through were made by a knife with a serrated blade (recommended for cutting Styrofoam).

3 Color, Gloss Coat Prints + Lamination

The found note is quite possibly the most important item for your capsule.  If all your GPS devices fail, this is your last hope.  Make sure to explain how the contents are not harmful and of course, provide some type of contact information.  We offered a reward (as do many), but in reality there is nothing keeping somebody from realizing that the contents are more valuable than the reward if they open your capsule.  Hopefully the person who finds your capsule (if it comes to that) is good-hearted and gladly returns the contents to you.

I printed off 3 found notes:

1.  One with “wings” so I could duct tape it to the outside of the capsule.

2.  Another one with a hole punched through it, so that it could be attached to the last failsafe mechanism (see the bottom of the GE Double Rocker Wallplate description).

3.  And finally I put one in the “Souvenir Bag.”  This was a bag that I let our crew members place an item in (as long as it was flat and lightweight) so, if recovered, they could say they have something that went to near space.  The bag was double bagged using two Ziploc Slider Bags, in case of a water landing.

I also had all 3 found notes laminated so that they would remain legible if subjected to any type of moisture (i.e. a water landing, morning dew, rain, etc.).  Just to give you an idea, the DINO I capsule was stuck in a tree for 15 days, it rained a lot and the found notes are still usable.

HotHands Hand Warmers 6-Pack

Technically speaking, all the electronics purchased for this project can handle the extreme temperatures in near space (minus the cell phone).  However, it’s not a bad idea to try and regulate the temperature inside the capsule which is done by using simple hand warmers.  Personally, the only electronic I was concerned about keeping sustainable was the SPOT Personal Tracker because it was the main source of recovery for the cooler.  So prior to filling the balloon on launch day, I activated three hand warmers and taped them down next to the SPOT in the capsule.

Stanley Line Level

This little level helped immensely when constructing the capsule.  After the camera hole was made, I used this level to help me choose the remaining positions for the rest of the items.  This is a trial and error method to see what works best (you might have different items, meaning you might have a completely different placement of the gear).  Once I found a layout I liked for the SPOT, Boost Mobile Phone, Duracell Charger, Souvenir Bag and hand warmers, I marked their positions and made slits for the zip ties to keep everything secured.  I truly believe this helped stabilized the capsule providing a more steady shot for the camera.

Mainstays Digital Kitchen Scale
To make sure you follow FAA Regulations (of keeping the payload under 4 pounds), you pretty much need some sort of scale to accurately measure all your items.  Plus, when you have a better understanding of the final weight of the payload, it makes talking to Kaymont much easier and they appreciate that sort of thing.

General Purpose Duck Tape Brand Duct Tape

It’s used for everything.  Whether it’s taping the excess rope/string or keeping the Souvenir Bag up on the side wall, duct tape just plain works.  After everything was in place (and turned on), we used duct tape to seal the capsule before liftoff.  Duct tape also acts as an almost reflective surface on the capsule, fulfilling the requirement for a radar device requested by the FAA (although we’ll probably attach an actual reflector that was originally bought for better efficiency next time).

Husky 1 Mil 10' x 20' Plastic Drop Cloth

The day of launch, it is nice to have two of these plastic drop cloths draped over your prep area.  That way you can spread everything out without having to worry about the grass or any random stones puncturing anything.

Latex Disposable Gloves

Latex gloves should be used by anyone handling the weather balloon directly.  The gloves help keep the balloon free from any oils coming from your hands.  They also help you grip the balloon during the filling (as you fill the balloon more and more, it becomes harder to hold).  If your launch day was anything like ours (90 Degrees and very humid), you’re going to have very sweaty hands and that’s not exactly ideal when trying to hold a 5-foot in diameter balloon.

22 Quart Styrofoam Cooler (For Testing Purposes)

This item is optional.  I simply bought it to practice using the StyroCutter, so I wouldn't mess up the actual capsule when cutting the holes.  I chose this particular model because its surface was most like that of the Emerson Cooler.  I also used this practice cooler to test all preliminary concepts.

Aesthetics (Optional)
+ Krylon H2O Latex Spray Paint
+ ScotchBlue Original Painter's Tape
            + Plaid Paint Brush Set 30-Pack

It’s not required, but I wanted to paint the capsule to make it look...well a little less like a cooler and something more professional.  If you want to paint your payload too, you MUST use spray paint specifically designed for Styrofoam.  Regular spray paint will disintegrate your Styrofoam.

Krylon is pretty much the only company I found who still makes this kind of spray paint.  The only problem is that I couldn’t find any stores that still carried the H2O line (even the stores that carried a plethora of Krylon products, I always came out empty handed).  So I picked the only two colors that vaguely resembled those of The DINO Mission and ordered them online from Hardware and Tools.  Shipping was ridiculous, but I was out of options.

I also wanted to spray the camera hole black to reduce the glare coming off the inner top and bottom portion of the camera’s viewing area (think Eye black in football and baseball).  So using painter’s tape, duct tape and extra plastic, I marked off the areas I wanted to spray (the brown outlines and main black strip) and simply applied coats, letting each to dry and repeated until I was satisfied.  If you have never spray painted anything in your life before, you’ll want to make direct left to right (or right to left) sprays around 10 inches from the surface, in an almost sweeping motion.  Apply thin coats until you get the desired area fully covered.  Patience is key, don’t rush it.

I couldn’t stop there though, so I traced/cut out an American Flag design from a cardboard box of cereal, then proudly used it as a stencil to put Old Glory on the DINO capsule.  The little touches go a long way.

The cheap brushes were bought to allow for touch ups during painting.  They will be used again to get the DINO capsule looking good for its future launches. 

Future Improvements

1.  Use the Skeleton Door (non-waterproof) instead of the Waterproof Door, allowing the air to circulate around HD housing. Then apply an anti-fog spray or gel to the housing lens area (inside and out), as well as the actual camera lens (I’m thinking of using C-Clear Anti Fog). However, if the capsule lands in water now, the data will more than likely be ruined but I’d rather take that chance for clearer footage.

2.  Come up with cheap way to record accurate altitude measurements that anyone could obtain over the internet.

3.  Although the problem was already acknowledged on launch day (after long, hot days, compromises are made), reconfigure a better length for the two different ropes in order to prevent the camera being covered by the shredded balloon on the descent. Maybe use a significantly longer rope running from the payload to the parachute and then a much shorter rope up from the parachute to the balloon. The longest part of the frayed balloon should be around 20 feet (diameter of balloon at the bursting point), a rope clearing that length would be ideal. So that when it dangles, it should not block the camera’s view.

4.  Attach an actual reflector that was originally bought for better efficiency.

Editor’s Note

I want to apologize for not putting up any links to the products used, techniques used, or any other information used.  You see, the thinking was to never have a dead link on the website, improving the longevity of The DINO Mission.  I tried to give enough information in places where I felt there might be confusion.  Clean and simple was always the motto behind the website.  That way, anyone could come to the page and they wouldn’t have to click on anything except for the play button on the near space footage.  The rest is simply scrolling up and down making the website more universal for any user.


Darren Snider
The DINO Mission Creator
Designer of Web Graphics & Layout
Constructor of Capsule
Launch & Recovery Team Leader

David Snider
Mission Specialist
Launch & Recovery Team Member

Kevin Chaney
Mission Consultant
Launch & Recovery Team Member

Dallas Breeze
Mission Photographer
Launch & Recovery Team Member


A Very Special Thanks to:

Elizabeth Snider (Funder)
The Siegel Family (Funder through Savings Bonds)
David Snider (Funder)
James Snider (Funder)

Tim Pickrell
Launch & Recovery Team Member

Jeff Steward & Elijah Kilgore
Retrieval Marksmen

Jerry Belcher & Family
Retrieval Headquarters

Dave Huber
Property Permission

Terry Creekmore
Professional Tree Climber

Evan Shepherd
Additional Equipment

David Snider
Additional Photography


The Icarus Project
(Robert Harrison)

The Brooklyn Space Program
(Luke Geissbuhler & Son)

1337arts and the MIT Guys
(Oliver Yeh, Justin Lee and Eric Newton)

HALO - High ALtitude Object
(Alexei Karpenko)

International Met Systems
(Balloon Inflation Instructions)

Near Space Balloon Flight
(Kevin Macko)

Pacific Star II
(Colin Rich)

Balloon Photography from Outer Space
(James Brittin)

Balloon v1.0