Thursday, September 06, 2007

A View from the Stratosphere

A stunning photo taken from a height of 117600 feet, or 35850 metre, above Alberta, Canada, by the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment #3 (SABLE-3). (Credits: Tony Rafaat for the SABLE-3 collaboration)

Ballooning has a long and outstanding tradition in scientific research - from the early heroic ascents of Jacques Charles and Joseph Gay-Lussac to the discovery of cosmic rays by Victor Hess and the modern-day experiments such as Boomerang.

Never mind if you have not heard before of the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment #3 (SABLE-3) - it's not really a large scale experiment, but the endeavour of a group of avid Canadian amateur scientists. What they do, though, is extremely stunning:

Take a standard KCI 1200 Sounding Balloon, add as a payload a digital camera and a FM transmitter coupled to a GPS receiver, and let it fly! The camera takes a photo every minute, while the balloon climbs to a height of roughly 33 km, where it will burst and fall down on a parachute. Due to the tracking device, the position of the balloon and the camera is known during the whole flight, and the payload can be recovered.

During the flight over Alberta on Saturday, August 11, 2007, the balloon reached a top height of nearly 36 km, and travelled a distance of about 100 km. The SABLE-3 website shows much more stunning photos taken during the flight, and documents the preparation of the launch and the recovery of the camera. It shows also a map of the flight path of the balloon.

It's really amazing what you can do with quite inexpensive equipment and a lot of enthusiasm - I just wonder if one needs the vast open spaces of Alberta to do such an experiment!

UPDATE (September 7, 2007): Thanks to SABLE-3 collaboration member James Ewen (VE6SRV), here is the link to a radio interview with Tony Rafaat (RealPlayer) by CBC Calgary - you should absolutely listen to it: Tony Rafaat tells about how he came to the idea, some mishaps with SABLE-1 and SABLE-2, and explains exciting details about the SABLE-3 flight, the tracking, the fear that the falling balloon may cause some harm, and whether the camera had survived the freezing cold of the stratosphere ...

  • The idea of the Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiment goes back to Tony Rafaat, a photographer based in Hanna, Alberta, Canada. The experiment was covered, for example, in The Globe and Mail - from where I have borrowed the catchy title - , and the Edmonton Journal.
  • For a great overview of scientific ballooning, see Julian Nott's talk Intellectual Courage and Scientific Ballooning - Exploring Landscapes Near & Far at the KITP.



  1. The German TV station 'Bayrischer Rundfunk' used to have a program called Space Night showing videos taken from space shuttles with chill out music. Other stations used to show videos taken from trains. I've always thought it would be nice to have videos from airplanes. The only thing I like about flying is seeing clouds from above.

    Great photo :-) Actually very similar to the one I am currently using as a desktop background.

    I am wondering whether a DIY balloon set for stratosphere photos would sell ;-)



  2. Wow, interesting! Great science on the (relative) cheap. Thanks,


  3. I am wondering whether a DIY balloon set for stratosphere photos would sell ;-)

    Dear Bee,

    exactly my thoughts!

    According to the article in The Globe and Mail, the total cost of the equipment was less than 500 Canadian dollars. I can imagine that such a balloon flight might be a great project for schools, or for public outreach in science in general.

    I just wonder if you could do such a flight in Germany, or in other densely populated areas, where chances are high that the parachute comes down on a motorway, or in the backyard of a house, and you may have all kinds of trouble with different authorities ;-)

    Best, stefan

  4. Balloons and airplanes do not mix - military, commercial flight paths, or general aviation. As the photo graphically documents, Alberta is aesthetic and economic Minkowski space. There is nothing for laws to target other than 1300 mi^2 of Athabasca Tar Sands.

    Athabasca recovered petroleum has the largest carbon footprint of any petroleum production anywhere. The product is so loathsome that it cannot even fire furnaces to heat water to recover itself. Inconceivably vast volumes of natural gas are burned instead. According to the Canadian National Energy Board, about 1200 cubic feet of natural gas produce one barrel of bitumen. One barrel of bitumen might be 0.8 bbl of petroleum equivalent, or less. That's conservation!

    Balloon flight over Athabasca, anybody?

  5. What a great photo! I will show this to my kids so that they can see "how far is the sky blue"? There is nothing better than a picture to explain things sometimes. (Well, except for music sometimes, too.)

  6. Dear Rae Ann,

    I will show this to my kids so that they can see "how far is the sky blue"?

    You then definitely should show them also the whole series of photos (scroll to the middle of the page) taken during the ascent - for example this one from a moderate 13000 feet, or this one from 58000 feet, so that they can see how view of the sky changes with height.

    Best, stefan

  7. Hi Stefan, really quite amazing and breathtaking image!

    Bee, I loved the spacenight program!, sadly I no longer have "sky" service, the music collated with the space images was awasome!

  8. Hi Paul,

    Coincidentally, I saw yesterday that BR sells a DVD 'Best of Earth Views' and CD's Space Night Vol 1-12. I don't own any of them so can't tell whether it's worth it. Best,


  9. You can also listen to Tony's interview on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corportation) radio show Wild Rose Country.

    The media response to this project has been ovewhelming to say the least. Tony was interviewed by the local 6 PM news a couple days ago, and did a live interview this morning on CITY-TV's Big Breakfast.

    The effort put into building and launching the balloon was miniscule compared to dealing with the media response afterwards!


  10. Right, and with proper stabilization, good economical astronomy can be done in the thin atmosphere.

  11. Hi james,

    thank you very much for the link to the radio interview - it is really fantastic, since Tony explains so many details about the flight, and the history that has led you to SABLE-3!

    The media response to this project has been ovewhelming to say the least.

    If you ask me: No wonder at all! It is simply fantastic what you acheived here: Taking NASA quality photos with such a relatively simple equipment - it is completely stunning.

    Many Congratulations to this great success!

    Best regards, Stefan

  12. Sort of gives us a bird's eye view of cosmic rays I would say? :)

    So on that point and the beautiful view, I would like to draw your attention to this article for future consideration.

    Oh, I am sure you remember Themis as well.

  13. In the letter section of the article in The Globe and Mail, Sable-3 team member Barry Sloan explains more details about the camera.

    He writes that with regards to the selection of the camera used, they wanted to keep things as simple as possible, so a camera with it's own internal timer to take images at a set rate was required to keep from having to provide extra electronics.

    While the requirement to withstand descent parachute failure was not such important a selection criterium, since most cameras would be in trouble then, having a light-weight camera was much more important. Along with the timer, this was the second main requirement, which lead them to the Nikon Coolpix P2 digital camera they purchased at eBay.

    Since both the camera and the tracker electronics are contained within a styrofoam container, even in case of parachute failure, the terminal velocity of free fall would not have been too big. The styrofoam payload container dipensed with the necessity for having a heavier, more robust camera. However, it's most important role is thermal insulation, since temperature can drop to -90 °C during the ascent. At that temperature, even if the camera could still work, no battery would. So, the insulating container ensures that the small amount of heat produced by the camera and the GPS/tracking electronics prevents everything from malfunction by freezing.

    As Barry closes, however, no temperature measurement equipment was aboard this flight, so it's anyone's guess just how cold the camera actually got.

    So, that may be an interesting new feature for Sable-4 ;-)


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.