After receiving an email from a Japanese enthusiast, a group of amateur radio high altitude balloon buffs jumped at the chance to help record the first ever non-professional near space high definition video, and maybe set a new altitude record on the way. After squeezing the HD camcorder and tracking hardware into a styrofoam box, and a couple of false starts, the 1500g high altitude, hydrogen-filled balloon was away.

Bears in space

Balloon Experiments with Amateur Radio (BEAR), a small group of friends and amateur radio enthusiasts, started sending balloons into the higher atmosphere in May 2000. Near space is considered anywhere from about 75,000ft right up to 330,000ft, where space actually begins. For the group's first attempt a SM foam capsule containing an APRS tracker, GPS antenna, battery and a small teddy bear was suspended beneath a helium-filled high altitude balloon and then launched into Canadian airspace.

This first launch was just to test that the equipment worked as expected. The team tracked the balloon's flight path using APRS telemetry data fed into some Windows software and combined this with constantly updated weather information to try and predict a landing site. After four and a half hours, reaching an altitude of 104,206ft and traveling nearly 107 miles the payload was recovered safely.

A cross-band repeater and digital camera were added for BEAR-2, which was launched in early August 2000. Sadly the camera had to be switched off though as it caused the repeater to malfunction. It reached 99,481ft and traveled just over 71 miles before landing right in the middle of the alkaline and mineral rich Battle River, not at all good for the electronics!

Helping SABLE

A good few years passed before the group helped out a student project, Southern Alberta Balloon Launch Experiments (SABLE). Aerial photography was the main aim of the SABLE project so this time the camera was sealed snuggly inside the payload. Sadly the first attempt was relatively unsuccessful, not even getting above 100ft.

The second attempt proved disappointing too as the tracker stopped transmitting suddenly and the balloon was lost, never to be recovered. About a year later, the team tried again. A 1200g balloon carried a Nikon Coolpix P2 payload to over 117,597ft. Nearly 200 digital images later and the payload was safely recovered. Success.

It was the subsequent posting of images from this flight on the SABLE website that prompted Tomoya Kamiko to contact team member Barry Sloan to ask if he could help send a high definition camcorder into near space. At the time Kamiko didn't speak very much English and didn't have a camcorder - but that soon changed.

Off to Canada

Kamiko booked his air tickets from Japan to Canada, bought a Canon ivis HF20 HD camcorder (the Japanese version of Canon's Vixia HF20) and brushed up on some English before meeting the team mid-August 2009.

The BEAR-3 payload of a Trimble Lassen iQ GPS receiver and embedded antenna, a Byonics Micro-Trak 300 and four AAA lithium L92 Batteries was suspended beneath a 1500 gram balloon filled with hydrogen (replacing the more expensive helium). This was to be an altitude record attempt so the payload had to be light, just 95.8g to be exact.

It reached 116,387ft, falling short of the current record by 11,992ft.

Stratospheric HD

Now it was time for the high definition video flight. Along with the usual tracking equipment and of course the Canon HD camcorder, ten L91 Lithium AAA batteries were squeezed in to ensure everything had enough power for the long flight ahead. A UV filter was screwed onto the camera and the opening in the payload box sealed to prevent damage in the event of a water landing.

Early in the morning of 24th August, BEAR-4 started its four hour journey into near space. As you can see from the video footage, the Canon HD camcorder managed to capture some stunning shots during its slow and easy ascent to 107,145ft and some startling, even stomach-churning images, on the speedier return to earth.

The following video shows highlights from the flight. Those of a sensitive disposition might care to look away:

The camera captured nearly four and a half hours of video before filling its 32Gb of memory, stopping just seconds before recovery - some 89 miles from the launch site. A smiling Kamiko recovered his camera and eagerly pressed play. Happily images showing the launch started to appear. When the team tried to fast-forward though, the camera locked up. The vacuum of near space had sucked out all of the air underneath the membrane switches and when the camera reached more familiar atmospheric conditions, air pressure caused all of the buttons to be depressed simultaneously.

After 24 hours of nervous waiting, full functionality returned as air seeped back under the membrane and allowed the team to witness the full high definition record of BEAR-4's epic journey into near space.

Smile, you're on TV

Both the BEAR-3 and BEAR-4 experiments were filmed for a feature on Discovery's Daily Planet which aired on 18 September. Meanwhile Kamiko returned to Japan on 30th August, camera intact and some high definition video footage of the earth from way up high and a thousand still images too.

A few days after Kamiko returned home, a few students from MIT sent a camera up to an estimated 93,000ft on a budget of $150.

Sloan and his team of family and friends will be making another altitude attempt in the near future, head for the BEAR website for more details. When asked by they do it by the Discovery Channel feature makers, James Ewan replied: "Why do people climb mountains?"

This video starts from ten minutes or so before the balloon popped:

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