ThunderStruck Progress.

Pajero Jan 2016

Pajero Tracking Vehicle Update

We are on the move after several delays. The proof is in the progress since our last post. We are now talking boosters from our balloon platform to get us to space and we are working on our technology. Balloon test flights are being planned for late January / early February

So lets look at what my son, Jason (13), and I have done and are doing about the tracking vehicle. We will have more, but we are planning on at least having our 4WD SUV ready for the trans-sonic test as soon as we get this approved by CASA – the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

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GPS and Supersonic Speeds

NovAtel OEM615Most GPS and Supersonic Speeds Don’t Mix

As if the cost of the zero pressure balloons is not enough, we have a real burden in using a GPS system that works at supersonic speeds and also one that worked above 60,000 feet. Yes, we want to do both so a standard GPS system will not work.

So Why the Limits?

It is not such a big issue these days as technology has moved on, but 10 to 15 years ago, this was a major deterrent to anyone wanting to use them in a missile. Unfortunately today, that is less of a deterrent as most people could easily source someone capable of updating the GPS firmware. None the less it is still a better and safer path to pay the manufacturer for a GPS system that has the limits removed. There are many manufacturers that can provide the product and some are harder to work through than others. This is often the result of a country’s regulations regarding export licenses. For instance, buying from Canada is simpler than buying from the US. It still takes a couple of weeks, but the opportunity to get a limited version for testing will allow us to swap out the limited version for the unlimited version prior to flight. As the system that we wish to use is available in Australia from a local distributor, it is very likely that we will buy from a company called NovAtel. Their product is the Receivers OEM615, although they have more expensive products that would do much more for us.

What are the Limits on Regular GPS Engines?

This from Wikipedia: CoCom is an acronym for Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls. CoCom was established by Western bloc powers in the first five years after the end of World War II, during the Cold War, to put an arms embargo on COMECON countries. CoCom ceased to function on March 31, 1994, and the then-current control list of embargoed goods was retained by the member nations until the successor, the Wassenaar Arrangement, was established.

In GPS technology, the phrasing “COCOM Limits” is also used to refer to a limit placed to GPS tracking devices that should disable tracking when the device realizes itself to be moving faster than 1,000 knots (1,900 km/h; 1,200 mph) at an altitude higher than 60,000 feet (18,000 m). This was intended to avoid the use of GPS in intercontinental ballistic missile-like applications. Some manufacturers apply this limit when both speed and altitude limits are reached, while other manufacturers disable tracking when only a single limit is reached. In the latter case, this causes some devices to refuse to operate in very high altitude balloons.

Can we get a Single Limited GPS Engine?

It is hard, but it is not impossible. If it was not for the manufacturers implementing an “or” function instead of an “and” function we could possibly manage to use a unit that would measure our speed and display GPS co-ordinates at over 60,000 feet (18km provided that our speed was under 1,900kph / 1,200mph). This is difficult as we may go over that speed limit. At that point the GPS output is usually nulled.  We need data at all times and do not want a blackout on our data. It will also let us say that we broke the sound barrier, but not by exactly how much. Thus we want a a fully unlimited module for the flight.

Other Factors

Ideally we would like to store our flight measurements. We will have telemetry and can store everything that is down-linked, but there is a risk in doing that. If we use a more expensive unit, then we can have “on-board ” storage. This is mission critical if the telemetry link malfunctions. The aircraft will still fly itself to the runway on auto navigation and we can try again if we have the gas and a second balloon.

Another issue is the rate of poling of the GPS data. We need more than once a second or we could miss our top speed by hundreds of kilometers and hour. This means simply poling of maybe 20 times a second. This rate is easily supported by our telemetry so we will get an instant top speed on the ground before it lands. Something that a basic unit will not be configured to do.

Specifications for the NovAtel Unit.

This is not the one that records, nor is it the top of the vibration resistant unit, but it is very well placed to do the job, after all, we can record the data on other equipment before it is sent to the telemetry system. The cost of the export License is probably $5K and the cost of the unit will be another $5K making a grand total of $10K. The Export License checks your usage of the device and makes sure that you are not a group building a missile for nefarious reasons.

The following from NovAtel’s documentation:

The dual-frequency OEM615 offers future ready, precise positioning for space constrained applications. Backward compatible with NovAtel’s popular OEMV-1 form factor, the OEM615 provides the most efficient way to bring powerful Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) capable products to market quickly.


  • Increased satellite availability with GLONASS tracking
  • L1, L2, L2C, B1 and E1 signal tracking
  • GLIDE smoothing algorithm
  • RT-2®, ALIGN and RAIM firmware options
  • SPAN® INS functionality


  • Proven NovAtel technology
  • Easy to integrate
  • Low power consumption
  • API reduces hardware requirements and system complexity


System Type


General Info

Length (mm)

Width/Diameter (mm)

Height (mm)

Weight (g)

Typical Power Consumption (W)





Max Num of Frequency


Number of Com Ports

CAN Bus  2
USB Device  1


Accuracy (RMS)
Single Point L1 1.5m
Single Point L1/L2 1.2m
SBAS 0.6m
DGPS 0.4m
RT-2® 1 cm + 1 ppm

Designed with Performance and the Future In Mind

The OEM615 tracks all current and upcoming GNSS constellations and satellite signals including GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou and QZSS. It features configurable channels to optimize satellite availability in any condition, no matter how challenging. The OEM615 is software upgradable to track future signals as they become available. Maximizing satellite availability and optimizing GNSS signal usage now, and in the future, ensures consistent, high performance GNSS positioning.

– See more at:

Dimensions 46 × 71 × 11 mm
Weight <24 g
Input voltage +3.3 VDC ±5%
Power Consumption11
GPS L1/L2 <1.0 W
all on 1.2 W
Antenna LNA Power
Input voltage 6 VDC-12 VDC
Output voltage 5.0 VDC
Max output current 100 mA

3 LVTTL up to 921,600 bps
2 CAN Bus12 1 Mbps
1 USB 12 Mbps
Pulse Per Second (PPS) output
Operating -40°C to +85°C
Storage -55°C to +95°C
Humidity 95% non-condensing
Random MIL-STD 810G
(Cat 24, 7.7 g RMS)
Sinusoidal IEC 60068-2-6
Bump ISO 9022-31-06 (25 g)
Shock MIL-STD-810G (40 g)
Survival (75 g)


3D Files and ThunderStruck Phase One

Thunderstruck Half Scale3D Files, Printers, simulations and More

by Robert brand

In the past we used wind tunnels and that was fine for subsonic flights. ThunderStruck does have access to wind tunnels at a number of establishments, but it is unlikely that we will need them. In part because supersonic wind tunnels are rare and because subsonic tests do not translate to supersonic conditions. Why wont we need them? Simply because computer modelling allows us to test most things extremely accurately without  the need for wind tunnels. The first part of the equation is to “make” a 3D model of the airframe and from that the options are extraordinary. Simulations of wind tunnels are just one option. What else can you do with the computer files of your model? well, we are not doing everything possible, but here are a few things:

  • Produced images of the ThunderStruck craft in solid form (we use Solidworks)
  • Rendered the surface to appear metallic
  • Added the ThunderStruck Logo and artwork
  • Animated the control surfaces on the craft
  • Sent it to a TV animator who will use the flight profile to simulate the mission
  • Made 3D models of the craft with a 3D printer.
  • Made a scaled nose cone for the 1/6th size model for demonstrations. Nose cones are immensely hard to create, but so easy with a 3D printer
  • And finally (so far) carried out Mach 2 flight simulations
Thunderstruck Phase One plans and view

Thunderstruck Phase One plans and view 1/2 scale

These simulations show up any problems and thus they have already resulted in small changes to the Phase One craft design. The biggest change will be a longer and more slender nose. You will see why in a moment.

One the right are the original plans from three sides. The software automatically creates the view (top right of image). The 3D files are then produced and it is often that simple. Everything flows from the files. The extension for the files is STL. A printer may break the files up to print an object in two, three or more parts. It depends on the size of object a printer can handle.  we wanted a 22cm model of thunderstruck and that was printed in three parts as it was too wide and two high. The parts were simply joined with acetate. It melts the material slightly and the pieces are then welded together without glue.

The solid image looks like this with a little bit of shadow and a plain surface. A “light source” is placed where needed to create essential shadows for the right feel and look.

The image above has been created to appear to sit on a grey surface. Remove that surface and add a metallic texture and a background image and you get this:

Thunderstruck Phase One Craft in Flight

Thunderstruck Phase One Craft in Flight. Credit Ben Hockley (ThunderStruck) and NASA (clouds and Moon)

The video below shows an animation for the control surfaces. Nothing much to see other than we are working on getting the smaller bits right for the big animations. You can also see our logo on the side so this is a two in one demonstration

Below is a rough picture of the printed 22cm model and the Nose Cone needed for our TV interview on Wednesday with Channel 7 (The Seven Network, Australia). It will be painted. If you look closely you will see the nose cone join and similarly you will see the join on the 3D model.

22cm ThunderStruck Phase One model and the nose cone on the right

22cm ThunderStruck Phase One model and the nose cone on the right

Below is the plan for the nosecone and it is simple to reproduce. Notice the curved area near the base of the nose cone. This is to ease the airflow over the surface and prevent the delamination of the airflow.

Phase One Thunderstruck 1.6 nosecone

Finally we can do simulations. I will explain what you are looking at below in the next post but wow this stuff is impressive. This si not the top end software, but just a basic system and it is more than adequate for our needs:


Most of the work on this page has been provided by Team Member Ben Hockley of Brisbane. I am grateful that we have a person with his skills in the team.


Navigation – Destination Signs in Space

Australian National Fabrication Facility’s Laser Labs

Destination Signs Will Pave the Way in Space.

by Robert brand

In the last day a comment by a well meaning reader condemned Project ThunderStruck for lack of information. In any project’s early days, that will always be the case, no matter how much funding you have and how real any project may turn out to be. The skeptics will always put down a project publicly based on their measurement system, lack of knowledge of the team’s capabilities or previous experience and a large number of other factors.

I cannot table what I don’t have as so much is fluid at the moment. We are tabling the Phase One tests and other facts as they are both allowed commercially or announced by the group with the appropriate permission of the stakeholders. Commercial-in-confidence will dictate these matters as in any company. None the less there are components of the craft that are solely my property at the moment. I can give you a snap shot of a typical day in my life at the moment that may show the strength of this project.

The title of this post is about Space Destination Signs and conversely avoidance signs or safe passage signs. So who is building these new modern signposts for the difficult environment of space and a navigation system to use them. We Simply I am and it is part of the Thunderstruck Navigation System

Laser Tag

I am not speaking about kids with toy guns, but a serious business in space that will create new auto-navigations systems and will keep track of objects that are on the move of change their location such as survey craft.

The concept is simple, but the solution is hard. If it was easy, we could all create it. My next words make me shudder as a recent detractor said that the term “Quantum” was not on the site and that was a plus. He said that was the realm of scientists, so I have some breathing space here because some of the solutions will probably have the word “quantum” somewhere in there, but scientists’ words, not mine.

There are two essential components of this project:

  • A spacecraft mounted laser transmitter and a laser receiver with a steerable mount.
  • A passive but easily identifiable laser reflector (Retro-reflector + ID).

You can watch the video below that both debunks any thoughts that we have not landed technology on the moon and also shows a small basic bit of essential info on retro-reflectors. Hey, it is Mythbusters – a great show anyway.

There must be at least hundreds of variations of these reflectors for our use, but each ID can be reused, just not in that locations. Lighthouses do that too. Many have the same rate of light bursts, but they are so distant from each other, there is no confusion. The laser reflectors can be made larger to give it “gain” and a longer range, but at this stage I would be happy with a 100,000Km range. Again I cannot give details as we have not selected the passive ID system and thus the weight, distance of operation and wavelength is not yet available. Nor is the polarisation and other factors, but whatever system we use, playing with the polarisation will give us three times the number. Left hand, right hand and no polarisation. We cannot use horizontal or vertical polarisation as we don’t now the orientation of the reflector, but we could use it as a forth multiplication factor if needed.

I am hoping that we will not have to delve into polarised reflectors simply because polarisation drops the reflected  light levels a lot, but they could be could for close up navigation systems.

There are a few candidate technology solutions for the system and I hope to finalise the selection of the core system in the next few weeks, ensuring a low cost, low mass system that is small enough for a good signal return.

Yesterday I visited the photonics labs at Macquarie University in Sydney. It is part of the Australian National Fabrication Facility – a group of high tech facilities in universities around Australia. Everything from clean rooms to heat shield fabrication. It could be R&D or it could be simply renting and using the equipment. It was the first step in assessing the capability of the group to produce the solution. I was very impressed by their range of equipment, services and people.

A nice side story here. The Sydney Olympic torches were incredibly successful due to their help. One of the problems with most torches is that there is a huge variation in the flame height and thus the burn time. You really don’t want a flame too small that gets blown out or a flame too big that the gas runs out before being transferred to the next torch. The lab fabricated a component by burning a bore hole though glass (or similar substance) that had a very precise bore hole that regulated the gas to burn at a very precise rate. It was a huge success and although you will not hear it officially in the real world another country contracted the lab to do the same for their Olympic torches.

I will revisit the labs in a few weeks and discuss the findings of the research and how we can engage the laboratory to build and test the systems for sale to the space sector. The ThunderStruck craft will have the active scanning unit as part of its plug and play design. Add it or leave it off, the decision is up to you.

Why Bother to Tag.

Spiral Search Pattern

Spiral Search Pattern

In the real world of space, there are no sign posts, but let’s say an asteroid has been tagged or even tagged a couple of times. Our craft will start looking for the reflector in the area of space that it is expected to be found. A simple spiral search starting at the expected location (centre of search) should locate the reflector if it is in view.  The search may have to be repeated many times if the target is rotating. Its rotational speed with determine the number of searches required and their interval.

In the event that the target is not found, a series of overlapping search patterns will need to be conducted around the outside of the original pattern and may require the craft to maneuver slightly. One found the information reflected distance to the destination and the angle of the search unit and the attitude of the craft will give the direction of the target reflector.  This is helpful to the extreme and you can then plan you trajectory to get there and the braking force required to stop at the destination without wasting fuel. Fuel is one consideration and so is time. This system leaves nothing to chance.

If you use an ion engine to brake, then you need exceptional information to get the flight just right and preserve fuel for the return flight (if there is one). This system is ideal for ion engine slowing and stopping. In fact the ideal slowing may be planned to just miss the target so that any failure or overshoot will not be an issue. Thrusters can correct the slight difference once stopped.

Other Reasons to Tag

There are many, but here are a few:

  • The target object is spinning
  • The target object has moved
  • The target is a spacecraft that is in a new location
  • The target is moving (a relative measurement of course).
  • The object is big and the target is a precise area of interest.
  • The target is to be avoided (a lighthouse style beacon)
  • The target is to be monitored (spin rate, speed, direction).
  • The target spacecraft has lost power and rendezvous is only possible with a radar reflector.
  • Staking a claim to a rock or body. International Space Law needs to be involved here.

There are many more, but the passive signpost is a feature that we can expect to see in space soon if we get the price and size right.

I expect to be a regular at the labs as we will be working on laser comms, but more on that in the near future. There is absolutely no reason that the navigation unit cannot be also a laser communications link. Once the first craft locates the second, the ability to for the second to “lock on” is made a lot easier with a constant laser pointed at it. The laser will be brighter than a reflected laser beam. Once locked, they will be able to talk to each other making the approach much simpler if they are to rendezvous. If you are concerned about the tag reflecting the signal, a voltage controlled shutter can be activated, diminishing the reflection or even steering the reflection away. There are options. More on our new technology later.

Robert Brand and Warren McKenzie at the Australian National Fabrication Facility's Laser Labs

Robert Brand and Warren McKenzie at the Australian National Fabrication Facility’s Laser Labs

Australian National Fabrication Facility's Laser Labs

Australian National Fabrication Facility’s Laser Labs

A Bit About the ThunderStruck Spacecraft

LegoBricks_1.jpgd498eb81-9774-46dc-ac4e-aa9800a21782OriginalThunderStruck Spacecraft Details

It has been spoken about before with other spacecraft design, but let’s put it clearly on the table. ThunderStruck is a multipurpose spacecraft designed as a carrier for your payload. It is modular. The systems on board will be designed to fit into a several configurations:

  • A winged vehicle for straight up and down flight, launched on a sounding rocket for microgravity experiments. The vehicle will need min or heat shielding and will land on a runway. A capsule and parachute is also a possibility.
  • A winged vehicle for LEO reentry. A capsule with heat shield and parachute is also possible.
  • A capsule for high speed reentry – a bigger heat shield and a parachute.

These are just a couple of the possibilities. Others are:

  • Laser or radio communications
  • optional ion engine for long distance travel
  • navigation aids
  • Power systems / solar configuration.
  • Cold gas or chemical thrusters

Of course there is more, but like a Lego system, these units will be basically a plug and play system. The units ensure compatibility and we can optionally open the payload doors if additional power or access to space is needed. The doors may have solar panel deployment.

We expect that the craft will not be sold, but the service rented. Place your payload in the spacecraft and we will take it where it is needed, we can swap out payloads and take on new payloads and we can return. It is expected that we can also stay on station and control the attitude, etc of your experiment for many years with no expectation of the craft returning to earth. ie no heat shields, no parachute.

If we are to rent such a service, it means that we also have to supply the mission control centre; backup centre; global links, receiving/transmitting stations and much more. The ThunderStruck concept is not just a spacecraft, it is a space service.

Ideally it would be great to have this small craft land in Australia, but if other countries wish to take part, spaceports around the world would be a consideration for a winged landing. With full autonomy on landing, once the destination details are uploaded, the flight systems will fully control the flight all the way to the ground, but given that this is a glider, it would need priority on the landing spaceport runway and the airspace to lead into the landing strip. This would suit dedicated spaceports where the runway is not for commercial aircraft landing or incoming spacecraft have priority.

Okay, there is a glimpse to the long term ThunderStruck spacecraft and its mode of operation. All comments appreciated.

There is one more important factor soon to be made public – the ThunderStruck team! Also the associations that we are making with important companies. Stay tuned for details.

Equipping our Tracking Vehicle

Pajero Centre ConsoleTracking Equipment and Mobile Technology

One of our big issues when working with balloons and supersonic gliders is that they never stay still. Even our balloon flights have reached an astonishing 230kph over land by simply climbing through the jet stream. Basically, the car can’t keep up. Even if we could travel at such mind-blowing speeds, we could never follow the same path and have to stick to roads that crisscross the landscape and never in an easy route across country. Mind you a recent flight did travel straight along the Mid Western Highway and have the courtesy to land within a few hundred metres of the main road in sheep grazing paddock. – no crops and no trees.

Simply we need to have not just good tracking, but great tracking. That is where the car needs to be able to cater for several technologies and that means radio and wireless data connections. Our car has just this capability and we need more. We have chosen a Pajero 4WD as we will need some rugged ability for off road work. In the past we have had to drive right through a 200m bit of forest without any road or fields that may have had animal burrows. over logs, through streams and much, much more. The Mitsubishi Pajero Escape is an older model, but still good and we have used it for balloon flight tracking in the past.

In Australia, the most common tracking for High Altitude Balloons (HAB) is via either HAM radio APRS for non commercial activities and RTTY on UHF for commercial activities.

Our Kenwood D710 radio sits on the central part of our dashboard in the car - easily able to display where we have to head.

Our Kenwood D710 radio sits on the central part of our dashboard in the car – easily able to display where we have to head.

Ham Radio APRS

APRS stands for Automatic Packet Reporting System and is a digital communications information channel that is capable of handling information such as GPS (Global Positioning System) data. This is ideal for tracking balloons. Ham radio hobbyists simply build receivers and port the data to a central server. Several receivers may pick up the signal and port the data which i recorded in the database. In our case every 20 seconds. The frequency of the reporting interval is important as the payload gets near the ground so that the radio can easily be located. In some areas there are no receivers and internet connections  – known as iGates. Care needs to be taken, but the solution is to have a mobile iGate in the car if there is good mobile wireless coverage in the area. We are preparing to have a mobile iGate in the tracking vehicle. Until then we have a high power APRS repeater. It receives the data and resends it to an iGate that is in range. Occasionally this is in another of our tracking vehicles and the ability to relay is important.  If you want the full details, you need Internet connectivity in your vehicle, either through a tablet or PC.


In Australia, it is illegal to use APRS to track commercial flights. We have to use something like the globally accepted UHF RTTY system. RTTY in Australia can be on multiple channels on 434MHz. and can only be 10mW of power. This is fine if you have height and can track to the ground. As with APRS, you need to be nearby when the unit is near the ground or the curve of the earth will cause the signal to be lost possibly 1Km above the ground. on a windy day this can lead to a big search area. Similar to APRS, there are many people that place a UHF RTTY gateway in their vehicle and gate the data to an internet server. If you want the full details from the server, you need Internet connectivity in your vehicle, either through a tablet or PC.

What is Installed in the Vehicle So Far?

Let’s do a list of the basics:

  • A Kenwood D710 APRS capable transceiver (VHF/UHF) with tracking display and GPS integration
  • An Icom IC-7000 all band HF/VHF/UHF transceiver that is RTTY capable (but does not display tracking)
  • An 80 channel CB radio on UHF (in case we have a non ham radio car in the group
  • A Byonics MT-400 10W APRS Beacon
  • A wireless mobile modem with a wired and WiFi router (so to have an external antenna) runs of 12 volts
  • A motorised antenna raiser – the big antenna hides in front of the roof rack and is near invisible.
  • A multi-socket cigarette lighter system for power for many items

What we need to be installed

Let’s do a list of the basics:

  • HF radio antenna (we have the Icom -700 HF radio side hooked into a 100w termination for safety)
  • An auto-tune system for the HF radio
  • Another big VHF/UHF  antenna with a motorised lifter.
  • 2 x 900MHz antennas
  • A 900Mhz antenna for 56Kb modem access to the balloon and ThunderStruck systems
  • Radio Controller as used for flying model aircraft
  • A video downlink on a band to be decided.
  • A visor and screen display for the video from the balloon payload and ThunderStruck aircraft.

So we are already halfway there, but still have a long way to go and need your help with funding. More on that soon. It is clear that we have a lot of this gear tested and bedded down and that is a good thing. Part of my requirements with this vehicle is to make it inconspicuous. Being old is a start. Hiding all the antennas is another. One antenna is super thin and near invisible, another is very short and the last folds down in line with the roof rack. The photos below show the antenna folded down and raised.

Antenna folded down

Antenna folded down

Antenna being raised

Antenna being raised

Antenna fully raised

Antenna fully raised

The fully raised antenna

The fully raised antenna

The antenna can be raised when driving and it lets us enter car parks without a second thought. We have a switch on the centre console, but i am thinking of adding a proximity alarm in case we forget that it is up. That is the switch to the right of the cigarette lighter. Sorry for the debris under the switch. We had just finished installing the Icom IC-7000 above it.

Centre console antenna switch

Centre console antenna switch

The passenger's side of the centre console with the CB radio and the 3 socket cigarette lighter extension unit

The passenger’s side of the centre console with the CB radio and the 3 socket cigarette lighter extension unit

The 10W APRS unit with the GPS receiver to the left of the transmitter

APRS 10W tracker with the GPS receiver to the left of the transmitter

In the picture above, we could have mounted the unit under the dashboard, but it is a little more versatile being  accessible. I also took the opportunity to hard wire the GPS Navigation unit directly to the car wiring. Since the 12 volt plug has the 5V system, we ensured that the charge unit from the plug was in circuit.

The IC-7000 in RTTY mode

The IC-7000 in RTTY mode

Note that I did not change the frequency to 434.650MHz or similar frequency where RTTY resides. I just wanted to show the fact that it does RTTY. The output at the back of the radio connects to an interface box and can then connect to your PC.

Pajero Centre Console with the Kenwood D710 on the top and the IC-7000 at the bottom of the console.

Pajero Centre Console with the Kenwood D710 on the top and the IC-7000 at the bottom of the console.

Note that the IC-7000 display is only a front screen. There is a cable to the base unit under the driver’s seat. it is wired so that the microphone and front screen can be moved to the rear seat so that an operator in the rear of the car can operate the unit. Similarly the base unit for the Kenwood is also under the drivers seat.

Kenwood D710 display  on the centre of the dashboard

Kenwood D710 display on the centre of the dashboard

Note that the unit above has its GPS hard wired. Like the IC-7000, it is a dual VFO. Only the B VFO is displayed above, but you can operate the VFOs on different bands or channels. It is very versatile.

Our Kenwood D710 radio sits on the central part of our dashboard in the car - easily able to display where we have to head.

Our Kenwood D710 radio sits on the central part of our dashboard in the car – easily able to display where we have to head.

The image above is displaying the rough compass direction to the station displayed. It shows an actual bearing (325 degrees) to the target and there is also a distance in 100m increments. Since the beacon was very close, it shows 0.0Km. A second display shows position altitude and speed.

Mobile Wireless modem, router and WiFi hotspot.

Mobile Wireless modem, router and WiFi hotspot.

Finally the above shows our mobile hotspot unit. It still needs its external antenna for really good mobile coverage, so it is temporary. It uses the rear 12 volt outlet next to the torch (bottom left) for power and once the antenna is installed, the modem will not be on the cable, but plugged directly into the TP-Link unit. We also have 4 hard wired network connections for future units such as the mobile iGate.

Also note that there are two other trackers on board that I will not disclose. It has significant anti-theft devices and tracking, so don’t come after this car. it might just get you caught.

Anyway, we are halfway there for Project ThunderStruck. We are extremely ready for any High Altitude Balloon flight.

Super Sale – 24 Hours Only

IMG_7340Super Sale – Weather Balloons, HAB Flights and More – 24Hrs

Live in Australia?

Tuesday 23th December 2014 4pm to Wednesday 24th Dec 2104 4pm:

We are, as always, raising funds for our Project ThunderStruck. Live in Australia and want weather balloons, want us to take your payload to the Stratosphere, or want to rent HAM radio tracking gear?

Sale Ends 4pm Wednesday 24th Dec 2015

Learn to Launch and Recover HABs

HABs? High Altitude Balloons. We can do just about anything. We can even take you along with us and show you how its done. It is the full course on flying payloads into the stratosphere. Just $500 per car and you drive your own vehicle – it must be in good condition and suitable for dirt roads.. We launch from west of West Wyalong in southern central part of NSW. The course is hands on and you will get to have a tracking radio in the car and be part of the recovery team. You cover all your own personal costs including road assistance coverage, etc.. You will also need a wireless enabled tablet – preferably Telstra connected and a mobile phone, again preferable with Telstra connectivity. Conditions apply. We may be flying this weekend. Maximum people in one car for the above price is three.

Balloons for Sale

We current have 30 x 100 gram balloons at $10 each + $15 delivery for 1 or 10. We have 2 x 500 gram balloons for $100 delivered in Australia by express post, a 350 gram balloon at $75 delivered in Australia express post and some older 3Kg balloons for $200 each – no guarantees. They are probably 3 years old, but that is all I know.


We can even rent you 3.4 cubic metre helium bottles (Size E) and balloon regulators. These need to picked up from and returned to Sydney and require substantial deposit of $700 per bottle fully refundable. At this stage it is cash only as we do not carry credit cards. It is also $2 per day per bottle after 1 week’s rental if overdue – conditions apply.

Radios, GPS, Cameras

The HAM radio equipment includes:

  • Yaesu GPS enabled APRS tracker VX-8 two way radio – VHF / UHF dual band
  • Byonics MT-400 APRS trackers – pre-configured with your call sign and SSD
  • GPS units for MT-400
  • Spot 2 and Spot 3 trackers
  • GoPro cameras with external connections for Lithium Iron batteries
  • Lithium Iron Batteries and charger
  • antennas

Send your Mascot or Sign to Near Space?

We can do it for $1,200, down for the sale from 1,500 and that was a special deal already – marked down from $3,000. Conditions apply.


Sale ends at 4pm Wednesday 24 December 2015 EDST

A 50% deposit must be made tomorrow (Wednesday) at a CBA branch OVER THE COUNTER to get this sale discount or goods with the balance on most items by Wednesday. This sale ends Monday at 4pm, but call me to negotiate a price after 4pm. For details on the rental of radio equipment and gas bottles – you can call me on 0467 545 755

Want to see when we have the next sale. Subscribe to our RSS feed to get our posts and be ready.

ThunderStruck mk2

Australia’s First Real Spacecraft

ThunderStruck mk2ThunderStruck Spacecraft – a First for Australia

Yes, Australia has built vehicles that have gone into space, but ThunderStruck will not be an orbiting satellite. It will be a vehicle that has propulsion other than that used for orbital watch-keeping. It is being designed to have both an Ion Engine for long distance travel and also a high DeltaV for rendezvous and reentry control.

So what is DeltaV?

Simply: Delta-V, or dV as it’s sometimes abbreviated, is a measure of the total amount of acceleration (or deceleration) your ship can output. Skip down to the next heading if you hate maths!

Mathematically, delta-V takes the form: delta-V = ln(M/Mo)* Isp *go

where delta-V is the change in velocity, ln is the natural logarithm function (look for it on a scientific calculator, or use =LN() in MS Excel), M is the full mass of the rocket stage, Mo is the dry mass of the rocket stage (i.e. what it weighs when all its fuel tanks are empty), go is standard gravity (9.81 m/s2 regardless of what body you’re orbiting/launching from) and Isp is the specific impulse of the engine (a way of measuring the engine’s efficiency). It’s importance, is in determining the total magnitude of the changes the rocket may make to its velocity before it runs out of fuel; in the process it determines where a rocket may go given a certain mission profile. There are three main ways of increasing a rocket’s delta-V:

1) improving propellant mass fraction (i.e. more fuel)
2) increasing specific impulse (by selecting an engine combination that increases this value
3) staging (shedding mass that’s no longer needed, which has the effect of improving the propellant mass fraction)

ThunderStruck’s Range

With an Ion engine, we expect it to be huge, but this spacecraft is designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land, so we have to slow and return. Basically, however long we took to get there, will also be how long it takes to slow. We will have some ways of beating that equation, but for now, we have to understand that Ion engines have an appallingly low DeltaV. That is why we need strong thrusters for the craft and a radically different system to make the craft more versatile. None the less, ThunderStruck  is being built for orbit but also for round trips to the Moon, Mars and Asteroids. With an upper design payload of around 50Kg, it should be able to handle significant experiments. The most appealing destination for long flights is of course the asteroid belt. ThunderStruck’s main role as a space taxi will be to meet with survey vessels to bring back payloads. The survey vessel will need to be able to rendezvous with ThunderStruck, remove the empty container and load the full container for the trip back to earth.

ThunderStruck is a Space Taxi – but not for people

Most craft are built uniquely for every mission. ThunderStruck is a “space taxi” built to a standard design. it will have a payload that will be able to be opened to space for any science such as collecting particles or other experimentation and be closed again for the return to earth. It is envisaged that a capsule version will be available for high velocity returns to earth and it will use a parachute to land. A further version may be used in a one way trip and not need an ablative shield. This will make it inexpensive to get somewhere and the navigation can be handled by the ThunderStruck team’s mission control.

ThunderStruck and Cruise Mode

I mentioned that there was a way to save time and fuel. Simply that is to launch directly to the direction required by buying a ride on a launch vehicle with a bit of power. The rocket can power us to fly in the right direction with plenty of speed. This either lowers the fuel consumption or the time taken, or a bit of both. None the less getting to your destination with more fuel and in less time is a good start to the flight. Launches like this are not precise. We will spend some time and fuel correcting the trajectory , and with an ion engine, that can take time. None the less in Cruise mode, we will put the bulk of the craft to sleep for periods. This lessens the load on the electronics and can provide more of our solar power to the payload that may in fact be fully operational. In Cruise mode all unnecessary systems will be shut down. They may be woken up for checks on position and direction or orientation to the sun for the solar panels, etc. For such a long flight we will need to use systems like reaction wheels for orientation to ensure that fuel is not used. Solar is renewable. Thunderstruck will need both solar panels for the ion engines and solar power for the spacecraft systems. The ion engine will have its own solar units and Thunderstruck will deploy its own for the flight. these may vary depending on the payload requirements.


About halfway on a flight that has not had boost assistance, we need to turn the spacecraft around and fire the ion engines again to slow the craft. Using the ion engines, this will be the same time taken to accelerate to that speed. It is a slow braking system, but it must be done. If we are using a winged vehicle that is designed for re-entry for Low Earth Orbit (LEO), then we must slow to reach those speed and enter an orbit that will be suitable for a LEO re-entry. If we hit the atmosphere too hard, we could bounce off (like skimming stones on water) and our heat shield and structural integrity would both fail resulting in a breakup of the craft. As stated before a capsule version of the craft may allow us to re-enter at high speeds.

A First For Australia?

Well in fact a first for the entire world. There is nothing to currently service this part of the marketplace. The same winged craft without a massive heat shield could also do significant experiments using a sounding rocket – straight up to over 100Km altitude and back down for a landing.

Heating is insignificant compared to the fiery re-entry that we are accustomed to for orbital re-entry but still a concern that will be addressed. Cold gas thrusters will be all that is needed for flight control until the atmosphere thickens and also a feathering system to keep the spped as slow as possible.

Phase Two Testing from Space

This will occur in about 2 years time and will test the feathering system for a sounding rocket. If nothing else it is likely to be the commencement of building a return vehicle for sounding rocket flights as these can be serviced with different guidance systems and cold gas thrusters – very different from the ThunderStruck spacecraft.

The cold gas thrusters may only be needed before and after the period of “weightlessness” has been used for the experiment. Unlike the tourism spacecraft, sounding rockets are capable of flight higher than 105km and thus a reliable return craft would be a commercial success. It may still have the same shape of the ThunderStruck spacecraft, but have no need for space systems as we know them. It will still break the wound barrier, but be able to land near to the takeoff point. This means full video from space and the entire return flight and that of the payload.

Support for ThunderStruck

The world needs a craft of this capability and Australia needs a healthy space industry. please support ThunderStruck by:

  • Linking to
  • helping with fundraising
  • contributing funds
  • talking about ThunderStruck
  • becoming a shareholder in the new company to own the intellectual property.
  • Donate time and resources to assist the project.

Technology Taking Shape – Radio Links

Control SystemFinalising ThunderStruck’s Radio Links

Aside from the airframe and servos, one of the hardest planning jobs is designing and building the various radio links.

It is pretty simple. Radio links are essential and not just nice. They will be mission critical to the success of the project, but we will have backups to complete the flight without crashing, etc. The links must be solid and with no breakup and must operate over long distances.

It is very important to realise the differences with the ground based systems and the aircraft systems. With the ground based systems we can have high power, large antennas, antenna tracking, mains/generator power and much more. on the aircraft we have both power and space issues. We also have temperature issues and the equipment must be tested in chambers that have had the air pumped out – I don’t like to use the term “vacuum”, but it is descriptive for most people.

How many links will we need?

At the moment we will need 4 radio links – 2 for the balloon and 2 for the aircraft.

  • The balloon telemetry system
  • The balloon camera system
  • The aircraft telemetry system
  • The aircraft camera system

We want to keep the video links separate from the telemetry as delays in the telemetry information can cause major issues. If you have ever had a large file download interrupt a Skype call?  you will know exactly what I mean. Imagine flying a supersonic aircraft and having dropouts on the links to the flight system! We can’t have that so we separate the systems. We also need to separate the balloon and aircraft systems as we will need to maintain video from the balloon well after the aircraft has separated from the balloon. We will also need to command the balloon to terminate its flight after separation. The most critical link of the 4 is the aircraft telemetry system and we have chosen a 900MHz 1 watt system. It is pretty amazing and handles 56Kb per second both ways at a distance of 80Km with diversity. Diversity is super important. I have posted the specifications on and earlier post, but I will repost them below. It can link directly to our control system and also to a navigation system such as the Pixhawk that we have chosen. The simple set up can be seen in the following diagram. More on this and the other links in a later post.

Control System

Note that in the above radio link system, the yagi antennas may have auto-tracking and will probably be vertical and horizontal diversity. We are toying with the idea of circular polarisation. More on patch antennas later.

From the RFDesign Website:

RFDesign is an electronics design and manufacturing company specialising in Embedded systems, Radios, Antennas and high frequency electronics. We are located in Brisbane, Australia with our office located in Acacia Ridge, QLD. 


  • Long range >40km depending on antennas and GCS setup
  • 2 x RP-SMA RF connectors, diversity switched.
  • 1 Watt (+30dBm) transmit power.
  • Transmit low pass filter.
  • > 20dB Low noise amplifier.
  • RX SAW filter.
  • Passive front end band pass filter.
  • Open source firmware SiK (V1.x) / tools, field upgradeable, easy to configure.
  • Multipoint software capability with MP SiK (V2.x)
  • Small, light weight.
  • Compatible with 3DR / Hope-RF radio modules.
  • License free use in Australia, Canada, USA, NZ


  • RF : 2 x RP-SMA connectors
  • Serial: Logic level TTL (+3.3v nominal, +5v tolerant)
  • Power: +5v, ~800mA max peak (at maximum transmit power)
  • GPIO: 6 General purpose IO (Digital, ADC, PWM capable).


  • Frequency Range:  902 – 928 MHz (USA) / 915 – 928 MHz (Australia)
  • Output Power: 1W (+30dBm), controllable in 1dB steps ( +/- 1dB @=20dBm typical )
  • Air Data transfer rates: 4, 8, 16, 19, 24, 32, 48, 64, 96, 128, 192 and 250 kbit/sec ( User selectable, 64k default )
  • UART data transfer rates: 2400, 4800, 9600, 19200, 38400, 57600, 115200 baud  ( User selectable, 57600 default )
  • Output Power: 1W (+30dBm)
  • Receive Sensitivity: >121 dBm at low data rates, high data rates (TBA)
  • Size: 30 mm (wide) x 57 mm (long) x 12.8 mm (thick) – Including RF Shield, Heatsink and connector extremeties
  • Weight: 14.5g
  • Mounting: 3 x M2.5 screws, 3 x header pin solder points
  • Power Supply: +5 V nominal, (+3.5 V min, +5.5 V max), ~800 mA peak at maximum power
  • Temp. Range: -40 to +85 deg C

Software / GCS Support:

The software solution is an open source development called “SiK” originally by Mike Smith and improved upon by Andrew Tridgell and RFDesign. A boot loader and interface is available for further development and field upgrade of the modem firmware via the serial port.

Most parameters are configurable via AT commands, Eg. baud rate (air/uart), frequency band, power levels, etc., please see the 3DR wiki for commands below for now.

V2.x firmware has been updated to support multipoint networking on the RFD900.

V1.x (non multipoint) is suitable for point to point links – the sourcecode is located at:

The user manual / datasheet can be found here : RFD900 Datasheet

A software manual for SiK firmware is here : RFD900 Software manual

RFD900 configuration tool:

RFD900 binary firmware repository:

3DR/RFD900 compatible configuration tool :

Wiki for the 3DR radios (RFD900 has same commands):

Integrated support for configuring the RFD900 radios is supported by APM Planner, with other GCS solutions in development.

The default settings are at 57600 baud, N, 8, 1, and 64k air data rate.

Software features include:

  • Frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS)
  • Transparent serial link
  • Point to Point, or Multipoint networking
  • Configuration by simple AT commands for local radio, RT commands for remote radio
  • User configurable serial data rates and air datarates
  • Error correction routines, Mavlink protocol framing (user selectable)
  • Mavlink radio status reporting (Local RSSI, Remote RSSI, Local Noise, Remote Noise)
  • Automatic antenna diversity switching on a packet basis in realtime
  • Automatic duty cycle throttling based on radio temperature to avoid overheating

website, for more information.

What is Project ThunderStruck?

ThunderStruck verticalProject ThunderStruck set to Break Barriers

by Robert Brand

This project is two projects in one. The total aim of ThunderStruck is to build as small a space craft as possible that will handle reentry, remain stable and land softly. The “softly” is important as commercially there are payloads that may need to be conducted in a “weightless” environment and then be brought down without too much jarring. A parachute landing will not be suitable. My son who is very aerospace savvy was keen to be involved in some way and Project ThunderStruck was born. We will help do the low altitude testing – when I say low, i mean from 40Km altitude (25 miles)

Imagine a time when a 12 year student could design and build a supersonic glider 2.5m / 8ft long, attach it to a huge helium or hydrogen balloon and take it to the edge of space, release it, fly it into a dive back to earth that will reach Mach 1.5 / 1,800kph / 1,120mph and land it. Well that time is now and the student is Jason Brand from Sydney Secondary College / Balmain Campus. He is in year 7 and has already broken plenty of records with his hobbies. Breaking the sound barrier will be another cool record.

New Science, New Data, New Opportunities

Apart from the glitz of the big event in 6 months (a 12-year-old breaking the sound barrier) there is a lot of science being done. In fact the event side of this project will be funded by sponsors and the crowd funding will be for the additional science outlined below.

There is a commercial opportunity to design and create a winged re-entry vehicle specifically for delicate payloads and experiments that last for more than 4 minutes in a weightless environment (tourist sounding flights to space). These are experiments and payloads that would find a parachute landing too harsh. There is a final output of the work and that is a spacecraft for experiments or even a payload taxi service back to earth. The most important aspect of this work is determining the smallest size of a winged spacecraft that can remain stable during re-entry. There are three stages of the physical testing:

  • Transonic – Project ThunderStruck in 6 months time
  • Reentry from space (delivered on a sounding rocket – no orbit); 2-3 years away.
  • Re-entry from orbit; 6 years away

There are two science components to the upcoming testing over the next 6 months:

  • Stability of a small aircraft at mach 1.5 / 1,800kph / 1,120mph and lower speeds for landing
  • testing a new type of surface for high-speed flight. (not a heat shield)

Since Jason has experience and a fantastic track record in High Altitude Balloon flights and flying remote control aircraft, he wanted to look after that first phase of the project. The transonic Phase. Transonic flight is the flight around the area of breaking the sound barrier. All sorts of problems occur near the sound barrier. When we drop the aircraft from 40Km altitude, first we have to get through the sound barrier as the drag increases significantly, but once through the barrier, the drag essentially reduces until your speed increases further. The real testing then commences as our tests will be about slowing, not increasing speed. We will be measuring the behaviour of the craft and airflow over the surfaces.

Project ThunderStruck has Commenced Flying Tests

Just in case you are concerned that this is all talk and no action, we started test flights in Sept 2014. The results are simply amazing and we will use them to refine our project.

The event will take 6 to 9 months to complete and the testing is the most important aspect of this project. It is new territory for us and almost the entire world. There is still fresh science to be done and innovative ways to use new materials and designs. Recently we learned a lot when a non-aerodynamic payload (space chicken from Clintons Toyota) reached speeds of 400kph / 250mph with its parachute deployed. This is because the air is pretty thin up at 33.33Km or 1/3 the way to space. Our payload took several measurements during the fall.

Rankins Springs Free Fall UpLift-19The space chicken was a simple test and we are now happy that we can easily fly at speeds of Mach 1.5 in the very thin air high up in the stratosphere. Left is a picture of the chicken falling back to earth at 400kph. Even the parachute could not slow the payload in the thin air. It slowed down as it reached 28Kms altitude and the air got a bit thicker.

We have started fund raising as we need help to cover the costs of the science parts of the project. Once we know what we have, we can decide on the extent of the program. We need $20,000 or more just for science and we have turned to crowd funding for that.

We have some “Perks” as part of crowd funding that I hope you will love. Some of our payloads will go supersonic before the big event, but they will not be aircraft. We might even donate one of our supersonic payloads to a generous contributor.

STEM – Project ThunderStruck set to Inspire Kids Worldwide.

Fighter jets break the sound barrier every day, but this radio controlled aircraft has no engine, weighs 9Kg (20lbs), is 2.5m (8 ft) long. So the pilot must be a really experience Top Gun to fly this plane at 1,800kph (1,120mph)? Well, no. His name is Jason Brand and he is 12 years old.

This is probably one of the most important demonstrations of STEM education that you can support. This is beyond the ability of almost every adult on the planet, yet a 12 year old student is set to inspire kids around the world with a daring project that is pure STEM – Science Technology Engineering Mathematics. It will make the seemingly impossible the domain of the young if they choose to break down the barriers imposed by themselves or others. Not only that, there is real science going on here.

Your Assistance is Essential

Your crowd funding help now is essential. It gets us started immediately. Flying balloons to the edge of space for testing is an expensive exercise and we have a 7 hour drive each way to get into areas of low air traffic away from the major aircraft trunk routes. We also have to buy a lot of radio systems to allow remote control from the ground when the glider is up to 100kms distance.

You can click on one of the 2 crowd funding links at the top right of the page. Even $1 will help unlock new discoveries and bed down older science.

Who is Jason Brand?

He is a 12 y/o student from Sydney Secondary College, Balmain Campus in Sydney, Australia.

He carried out his first High Altitude Balloon (HAB) project at age 9 and was so inspired that he sat for his amateur radio license at 9 years old. Since then he has launched a total of 19 HAB flights and recovered all 19. Some flights were in Croatia where mountains, swamps and landmines are risks not seen in Australia. He is also the Student Representative for Team Stellar – A Google Lunar X-Prize team attempting to get a rover onto the moon.

J20130414 Jason Brand on the Fuzzy Logic Science Showason appears on Radio and TV regularly and the picture right shows him talking about HAB flights on Canberra’s Fuzzy Logic Science Show in 2013. He is also a member of the Australian Air League, Riverwood Squadron. He plans to solo on his 15th birthday.

His father Robert Brand is an innovator in creating low cost solutions for spaceflight. He speaks regularly at international conferences, is a regular guest lecturer on aerospace at Sydney University, writes about aerospace and takes a very “hands on” approach to space. He supports Jason’s project fully.

How will ThunderStruck work?

The same way that the first pilots broke the sound barrier: in a steep dive. The problem is that since there is no engine and the biggest issue is air resistance, Jason will launch the aircraft from over 40km altitude or nearly half way to space! He will get it there on a high altitude balloon. The air is very thin at that altitude and the craft should accelerate past the speed of sound before it is thick enough to slow it down. A tiny fraction of one percent of the air at sea level. During the dive, the craft will accelerate to well over Mach 1 and way less than Mach 2 and will need to be controllable by its normal control surfaces to pass as an aircraft. As the air thickens at low altitudes, the craft will slow and with the application of air brakes will slow and then be levelel off for normal flight to the ground.

The Technology

We will have a camera in the nose of the aircraft and it will transmit TV images to the pilot on the ground. Jason will be either in a darkened room with a monitor or wearing goggles allowing him to see the view from the on-board camera. This provides what is known as First-person Point of View (FPV). The aircrafts instruments will be overlaid on the video signal. This is known as “On Screen Display” or OSD. Below is a view typical of what will be seen by Jason as he lands the craft.

osdThe video signal must travel over 100kms to be assured of the craft being in the radius of the equipments limits. Similarly we must send commands to the control surfaces of the radio controlled aircraft. Again this must work at a distance of over 100kms. The craft has ailerons, elevators and rudder as well as air-breaks and other systems that need controlling. We will use a 10 channel system to ensure that we have full control of every aspect of the craft and a “binding” system will ensure that only we can fly the aircraft.

We will have to buy 2 x $5,000 GPS unit capable of sampling at what is essentially the speed of a missile. These are highly restricted items, but essential. The unit will record to an SD card and send back telemetry every second. It is essential to know the speed during the flight rather than waiting until after the event. After all Jason needs to knowthe speed to be able to fly the aircraft. We will also need 2 x radar responders to allow other aircraft and air traffic controllers to know where our craft is and our balloon is at any time.

The Big Event

We can expect global TV News coverage of the event and many records to be broken. The day will start by filling a large Zero Pressure Balloon like the one pictured below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe balloon will carry the aircraft to over 40km where it will be released and go into a steep dive and break the sound barrier. As the air thickens, the speed will slow and the craft will be pulled out of the dive and leveled off to drop speed. The aircraft will eventually land and data and video records will be recovered. We will already know the top speed, but there is nothing like solid data rather than radio telemetry that may miss the odd data packet. Both the balloon and the aircraft will be transmitting live video.

There will be opportunities to attend, but it is likely to be in a rather remote part of the state (NSW, Australia) or a nearby state. The flight will be broadcast over the Internet and the opportunity to track and follow the flight will be available to all. The chance to be involved is high and the science and inspiration will be out of this world. Project ThunderStruck is set to thrill.

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