A high-altitude balloon will, it is hoped, travel from Memorial Glade at UC Berkeley to near-space on Saturday, March 18. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Many UC Berkeley students have sky-high ambitions, but this weekend some are going to new heights.

Members of the East Bay Amateur Radio Club and UC Berkeley’s radio club are teaming up to launch a high-altitude balloon to near-space, and they are inviting the public to come track its journey. On Saturday, March 18 the group will launch the helium-filled latex weather balloon from Memorial Glade on Cal’s campus at 10 a.m. and then, using software that tracks the balloon’s location, chase after it in their cars.

The balloon is expected to reach an altitude of 90,000-100,000 feet.

“People tend to get finicky about what the absolute definition of the edge of space is, but that’s the edge of space,” said the East Bay club’s Martin Rothfield, a retired communications professional.

The balloon will be outfitted with GoPro cameras and a radio. A UC Berkeley microbiologist will also load it up with scientific gear, to collect air samples from the flight.

Participants must ready for a bit of a road trip, as the balloon is expected to land somewhere near Stockton. The direction and strength of the wind could cause it to change its course. There is a one-in-five chance the wind will blow westward, meaning the balloon could land in the ocean, Rothfield said.

“The chase part is fun,” he said. “You’re dependent on the radio onboard the capsule to track it. That’s the only way to know where it is.”

The radio sends signals to a network of ham radios connected to the internet. The location information is available in real-time to anybody with internet access.

A high-altitude balloon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But ham radio hobbyists were around long before the digital age. UC Berkeley’s amateur radio club, W6BB, is more than 100 years old. The Richmond-based East Bay club, the sponsor of Saturday’s launch, was started more than 50 years ago. Ham radios are often used for long-distance and emergency communication, and the local club members volunteer as safety officers stationed throughout Bay Area bicycle and foot race courses where cell phone service is unreliable. The Cal club and the East Bay club joined forces for a balloon launch two years ago as well.

High-altitude balloon flights date back decades too, but modern technology offers new potential. The balloons can be used to conduct scientific experiments and cheaply test how well equipment will fare in space. One company is already selling tickets for crewed balloon flights to near-space — but at $75,000 a ticket, so-called “space tourism” is not likely to fit into most summer vacation budgets.

The local amateur radio enthusiasts are a bit more down to earth. Saturday’s launch will cost a few hundred dollars.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...