Iceland’s original energy drink, Orka, just got a nice makeover and wanted to share the new looks with the world. We at Ketchup Creative teamed up with our friends at Ölgerðin, the drinks’ manufacturer, and decided to send one lucky bottle flying into the stratosphere along with GoPro cameras to document the journey. The whole thing was then streamed to Facebook, giving viewers a chance to win the precious cargo (plus another 364 bottles) once it landed back on earth. The result was a 2-hour long video which kept audiences glued to the screen, as retention rate data shows that thousands even watched the entire thing from start to finish.
In this post, I will take you step-by-step through the process of sending a GoPro to Space — and back.
Step 1: Research
Like most new projects, when you have no idea what you’re doing, Google is a good place to start. High altitude weather balloons offer the safest and most cost-effective way to do DIY space travel, so that’s how we did it. We set our target altitude at 35km and began constructing our spaceship.
Step 2: Building a “Spaceship”
Although we were able to buy a balloon and some other essentials out-of-the-box on highaltitudescience.com, there was no place to buy exactly what we needed. The plan was to create a platform onto which we could mount a GoPro, pointed at a bottle of our energy drink while flying through Icelandic weather, into the stratosphere.
Styrofoam box, lightweight wooden stick, thin rope, parachute, GPS tracker, data logger (optional), GoPro, battery pack, cardboard, plastic straps, electrical tape, duct tape.
We grabbed a simple Styrofoam box from a local grocery store and used it as the foundation of our spaceship. We then added thin styrofoam pieces on each side to minimize spin while in flight.
We chose to use two GoPro cameras: The primary camera with our bottle fixed in the frame, and a secondary camera placed on the other side of the box with unobstructed views. Once in the air, the cameras are exposed to extreme temperatures as low as -60° and to counter that, we decided to add a layer of cardboard for insulation. Finally, we sealed everything off with electrical- and duct tape.
Possibly the most gorilla-style piece to this puzzle. We simply found a lightweight wooden stick at our local hardware store, stuck it through the Styrofoam boxed and bolted the bottle to one end, facing the GoPro.
Parachute and rigging
The Parachute is the only thing holding your payload and balloon together throughout the entire flight. To prevent our Styrofoam box from crashing down like a meteor, we spent a lot of time stress testing the parachute and connecting ropes in various ways. It was crucial to prevent any possible safety hazards resulting from our little operation.
Step 3: Tracking a “Spaceship”
There are a lot of options available when tracking the whereabouts of your spaceship. We used a GPS tracker called SPOT trace for its robust build qualities and ability to operate in extreme temperatures. As GPS trackers need to maintain a clear view of the sky at all time, we carved out a small piece on top of our Styrofoam box and inserted the tracker.
To have a working GPS tracker is great, but only if you can retrieve the payload once it lands back on earth. As we estimated to reach an altitude of 35,000m, it was important to calculate exactly where our spaceship/weather balloon would land after 3–4 hours in the air. Iceland, being an Island, is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and landing there meant immediate mission failure with zero chance of payload recovery.
We did some back and forth calculations using this handy tool from Cambridge University and later consulted with the Icelandic Meteorological Office to confirm the flight path. Luckily, we had the Icelandic wind on our side and found the perfect day where our balloon would not be sent flying into the ocean.
Step 4: Launch Day
Before you settle on a time and date for the launch, you must first coordinate with your local aviation authority and request permission. Air traffic controllers will then publish an “air traffic warning” (NOTAM) shortly before launch, so other aircraft in the airspace are aware of the incoming object.
Inflating the balloon
Inflating your balloon with the right amount of helium is mission-critical. Calculating the helium needed based on your desired burst altitude is now relatively easy thanks to this handy tool.
In our case: The target burst altitude was 35,000m, we had a 1600gr balloon, and our payload weighed 980gr.
Those numbers meant that we needed 4815l of helium gas to gain the necessary lift of 3,342g to reach the target altitude. We bought a 50l helium bottle, so we had just enough gas for two-takes if something were to go wrong (keep in mind that a 50l helium bottle holds 9100l of helium gas).
Launch and wait
Finally, we filled our balloon with helium and successfully launched. What followed were over 3 hours of agonizing wait. To briefly explain why:
Once a high-altitude weather balloon is released, it usually takes about 40 minutes to reach an altitude of 60,000 ft. — To weather balloon enthusiasts, this is known simply as ‘the blackout period.’ At this point your balloon has gone higher than the reach of the GPS network, so for the next hour, you won’t have the slightest idea of where your payload is or where it’s headed. Weather balloon experts have a workaround for this by using both GPS and custom radio transmitters — but we are no experts.
Houston, we have a problem
After anxiously waiting through the blackout period, there was no sign of our payload. We waited, and then waited some more. If everything had gone according to plan, we should have seen it appear back on the map 20 minutes ago. Based on prior research, we knew that something had gone wrong. How wrong? There was no way to tell. The best-case scenario at this point was that our balloon had, for some reason, ascended at a slower pace than expected. Resulting in longer flight time and unfortunately, bursting at a lower altitude than our target of 35km.
Finally, at 30 minutes past the estimated blackout period, after obsessively refreshing the tracker for almost 3 hours, our three-person space program was about to give up hope. We sat in the car in total silence until we agreed it was time to head home. Just before heading back, I decided to give it one last go before reporting a mission failure. BOOM! Slightly off-path, but our little spaceship was phoning home. We jumped from our seats, high-fives were given, as we went in pursuit.
Step 5: Payload Recovery
Like something out of a retro Sci-Fi film, our Styrofoam UFO seemed to have landed on miles of empty farmland. After a closer look, we discovered the landing site was an old horse farm spread over a large area not too far from the town of Selfoss. We drove towards the landing site and soon realized that our tracking data was about to have us jumping fences into an open field of Icelandic horses.
As we walked further into the field, we noticed that the horses were no longer scattered. Instead, they were all cramped into a circle in the middle of the field. They had found it.
Step 6: Mission Accomplished
Our GPS tracker turned out to be incredibly accurate, and we were able to find the payload within 10 minutes of arrival to the landing site. We jumped back in the car, hooked the GoPro to our computer, and watched as the tiny camera brought back actual footage from space.
Watch the full journey in 1 minute:
Thanks for taking the time to read. If you’d like to chat about marketing or other interesting stuff, feel free to say hi firstname.lastname@example.org 👋