Alaska: Above the Last Frontier

In October of 2015, we formed Night Crew Labs and set out with the ambition to take video of the northern lights from a high altitude balloon. After many local test flights in California, several design iterations, and much planning we went to Alaska in March of 2017 to do just that.

We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska on March 17 and began our balloon flight campaign. We planned to fly up to four balloons, allowing for several day and night launches over Fairbanks. We chose March, near the vernal equinox, as it is the optimal time to see the Aurora Borealis due to the right combination of clear skies and space weather. When 8 tanks of helium arrived at our location, we knew this was for real.

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The complexity of this mission in the harsh Alaska conditions called for some custom hardware. This began with the NCL Balloon Integrated Re-programmable Computer (BRIC) – Mark II. The BRIC consists of an Arduino MEGA which runs our custom flight management software. We had a custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB) fabricated to allow for ease of integration with other components including a GPS unit, radio telemetry link, barometric altitude sensor, and 8 thermistors (temperature sensors). The GPS helps us determine position, the radio allows us to track the payload in real time, and the thermistors give feedback for our electric heating system needed to keep everything from freezing in the harsh -50 C (-58 F) high altitude environment.

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The PCB design also allowed us to easily assemble multiple units, allowing us to bring two complete builds with us to Alaska. This was a necessity, as there was a very real possibility we would lose one in the remote Alaskan wilderness. We also had a day and night configuration, the difference between them being cameras. The day flight configuration flew a GoPro Hero 4 Black, a 360Fly virtual reality camera, and a Google Pixel phone. The GoPro Hero 4 and 360Fly recorded in 4K during the entire flight, while the Google Pixel was set to take pictures every two seconds. The night flight was designed around the low-light capable Sony A7S with an external 4K recorder. All electronics and cameras were housed in a custom 3D printed structure which was fabricated at a discount by RYT Manufacturing in Santa Clara.

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On the morning of our first launch, we drove about 10 miles west of Fairbanks, and stopped at a parking turn-out off the side of the mountain ridge highway. We filled the balloon and prepared the camera payload as the air temperature was well below freezing. After the launch, we immediately drove to the expected landing site, Chena Lakes Recreation area, about 40 miles away. Using our real-time radio link, we could track the payload throughout the mission. We finally lost track of it when it descended below 2000 ft, and the line-of-sight radio link was lost. As was the case for both day flights, all the equipment worked, and we recovered both flights with relative ease. Each flight landed within half a mile from a road, requiring us to trek in with snowshoes.

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Thank You’s

Thank you to Alana Vilagi, Eli Barry-Garland, and Mary-Cathrine Leewis for their hospitality and expert knowledge of both cold weather operations and of the Fairbanks area.

Thank you to Lucas Hulien for his help with logistics before, during, and after our stay in Fairbanks.

Thank you to RYT Manufacturing in Santa Clara, California for their expertise, quick turnaround, and discounted pricing for our project.

Thank you to the folks at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) center in Fairbanks and to those at Air Traffic Control (ATC) who worked with us to make these flights possible.