Aimed for China: Ham operators to launch balloon Saturday

South Texas Balloon Launch Team will launch an unmanned, helium-filled balloon at 3 p.m. Saturday at No Label Brewery, in hopes the balloon will make its way from Katy to China.

A group of amateur radio “ham” operators wants to establish a world record for distance by attempting to fly an unmanned, helium-filled balloon from Katy to Nanjing, China.

The South Texas Balloon Launch Team will release the balloon at 3 p.m. Saturday near the oil rice grain silos at the western end of No Label Brewery, 5373 First St.

“It’s an experiment to see how far we can go,” said A.C. Spraggins, one of the coordinators of the event. “This is our 28th launch in 21 years, and before we were going for altitude. This time, we’re going for distance. We want it to go to China, where the balloon was made.”

The team will use the rice dryers and silo facilities to fill the balloon with helium.

“When we launch the balloon, it’ll be about five feet in diameter,” Spraggins said. “But as it rises, the balloon will fill to capacity and will expand to about 39 feet in diameter. We don’t want it to get to 40 feet because the balloon will burst. The maximum altitude is expected to be above 100,000 feet with horizontal speeds between 100 and 150 miles per hour.”

The balloon will carry a small package equipped with a high-altitude GPS tracking system and a VHF amateur radio transmitter.

“We have some equipment installed on top of No Label Brewery that connects to other stations like itself,” Spraggins said. “Every few minutes, the signals are retransmitted from the balloon, and we get real time information on where the balloon is and how high it is.”

With the help of “super computing powers” from the National Weather Bureau and NASA, the balloon launch team is hoping the balloon will make it to China.

“We tell them what we want to do, and they give us their best predictions,” Spraggins said. “The balloon’s speed and direction will be totally dependent on the wind.”

The last two launches were held in Wharton, and since the team was going for altitude, the balloon’s life span only lasted a few hours. Last year, the balloon landed 50 miles from the launch site, and the year before that, it landed in the middle of Highway 59 about 10 miles away.

“With the GPS, we’ll know where it is, but we don’t know where it’s going and where it’s going to come down,” Spraggins said.

The public is invited to attend the balloon launch Saturday, which is free of charge. If weather is not permitting, the alternative date is Feb. 18.

Those who want to monitor the balloon’s progress can also track its journey online at www.aprs.fi and filling in the “track callsign” field with “kt5tk-11.”

For more information about amateur radio projects, please visit www.w5acm.net.”