Can I launch a weather balloon (11 things to know)

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Weather Balloons

Launching a weather balloon can be intimidating as there are a lot of details to consider and regulations to follow to allow for safe operations and a successful mission.  I have trained hundreds of educators and aerospace professionals to launch their own weather balloons and will cover the nine things you need to know when planning a mission.  
Anyone can launch a weather balloon if they follow their region’s local aviation regulations and have the proper supplies.  In the USA, the FAA designed regulations to keep the airspace safe.   You will also need the following supplies: a weather balloon, lift gas, parachute, and tracking device.
If you want to launch your own weather balloon, I will cover the eleven things you should know to get started.  

Is it illegal to launch a weather balloon? 

I have planned many weather balloon launches, and it is essential to understand how the balloon’s launch site will affect the airspace above, which is dedicated space for airplanes to travel safely.  To conduct a weather balloon launch legally, you must follow local aviation regulations.
 As a general rule, it is legal to launch a weather balloon by following the local airspace regulations.  In the United States, these airspace regulations are governed by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  
These airspace regulations are typically written in a way that a trained pilot would understand, so it can be beneficial to work with a pilot or local aviation authority to understand the regulations and safely share the airspace with airplanes.
Unfortunately, the aviation authorities don’t always use the term “weather balloon” in their regulations, so a Google search may not provide results. Some other terms used as a synonym for “Weather Balloon” in aviation regulations are sounding Balloon, Unmanned Free Balloon, Meteorological Balloon, Stratospheric Balloon, and High-Altitude Balloon.  These terms will help you locate your local aviation regulations related to weather balloons. 
The most crucial aspect of most aviation regulations related to weather balloons is the location of the launch and landing site and land and proximity to an airport.  Most airports have an area surrounding them, which is “controlled airspace”.  This means the aviation authorities want to know everything about all vehicles flying within this airspace as they are providing guidance to each aircraft as they take off and land at the airport.  The best way to find this information is to look at Aviation Charts.  These can be intimidating to look at, but a licensed pilot could provide great insight. 


How can I track a weather balloon? 

I have launched hundreds of weather balloons and tried many different styles of weather balloon tracking devices to find which works best.  There are some key factors to consider when selecting a weather balloon tracker. 
In order to track a weather balloon, you will need a tracking device with the ability to send its GPS location data to the user from any location.  This allows you to locate and recover your weather balloon.  As a general rule, satellite radio trackers and line-of-sight trackers work best. 
Here are some examples of the best and worst tracking devices for weather balloons. 


Best tracking devices for a weather balloon: 

  • Satellite Radio Tracker
    • This category of trackers sends GPS data to satellites orbiting Earth, relayed to the ground, and back to the user via the internet.
    • This type of radio is the easiest to use, but the Satellite Radio Tracker must be placed away from other electronics to prevent interference with its communications. The most common is the SPOT Trace from Globalstar.
  • HAM Radio Tracker (line-of-sight)
    • Many online articles discuss using HAM Radios for tracking weather balloons, but this type of tracker requires an Amature Radio License to operate.
    • These trackers work well but usually require extensive knowledge of HAM Radio.
    • A line-of-sight tracker requires a receiving radio on the ground or the chase vehicle to receive the final landing location.
  • LoRa Tracker (line-of-sight)
    • The newest category of trackers is the LoRa and LoRaWAN, which utilize a radio frequency open for the public.
    • The LoRa tracker is a line-of-sight tracker and will require a receiving radio on the ground to pick up the GPS Data sent from the weather balloon.
  • LoRaWAN Tracker (line-of-sight hybrid)
    • A LoRaWAN Tracker utilizes a public network of ground stations to relay the GPS data to the user.
    • The LoRaWAN tracker is a line-of-sight radio, but the ground stations are located on homes and businesses to relay IoT data from sensors.
    • This method of tracking has difficulty sending final landing locations as it may land away from the public network.
Most commercially available tracking devices that send GPS data to users do not work for weather balloons or are illegal due to the radios used break regulations specified by government agencies.   Limitations to the most common tracking devices make them unsuitable for use on a weather balloon.

Worst tracking devices for a weather balloon (will not work): 

  • Cellphone for Tracking
    • In the United States, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) it is illegal to use a cell phone on any aircraft.
    • Most of the locations that are safe to launch and recover weather balloons do not have good cell phone coverage and may not send final landing coordinates.
  • GSM Tracker (Anything with SIM Card)
    • The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) Network utilizes cell phone tower networks that are illegal under the FCC Regulations, just like smartphones, and will not provide the final landing location of your balloon and payloads.
    • You will often see these as pet trackers or vehicle trackers, and in the fine print, utilize a 3G, 4G, or 5G network.
  • Apple AirTag (Bluetooth Tracker)
    • This very lightweight and impressive tracking device provides tracking location via Bluetooth and its proximity to other Apple Devices. This works well in densely populated areas.
    • Typically, weather balloons land in rural areas and will not be close enough to an apple device to send its approximate location.

What camera is best for weather balloons? 

Recording the journey of your weather balloon to the edge of space and back is a top priority for most people.  The variety of cameras, related settings, and accessories that will work at the edge of space when the temperature reaches -40 F ( -40 C ), the unbelievable sun brightness, and the absolute blackness of outer space can be mind-boggling. 
As a general rule, the best cameras for weather balloons are from the action camera category.  These action cameras are usually rugged, lightweight, and have a small form factor.   There are two types of action cameras:  1) Standard fixed-angle video camera  2) 360-degree video camera. 
Here are a few suggestions when looking for a standard fixed-angle video camera and selecting the settings:
  • Camera: Use the most lightweight camera for your goals
  • Frame Rate: Select 60 frames per second (can slow the footage down in editing)
  • ISO: Select a lower ISO of around 800, as it is always a sunny day above the clouds
  • SD Card: Use a large SD Card, as the battery of the camera should die before the SD Card is full
  • Field of View:  Use “Standard,” not “Wide,” as the fisheye effect is too drastic in “Wide” mode
  • Resolution: Using 1080p is good enough to post online and will save battery power
  • External Battery Power: If you have the weight, it is recommended to add external power via a USB cable to your camera, allowing for filming for over 2 hours, which is the average length of a weather balloon flight.
  • Weather Proof: Selecting a camera that could survive being rained on is recommended, as you might not recover on the same day as the launch.
There is also the option to use a 360-degree video camera, which captures video of everything through two lenses.  This is another great option, but each camera requires a different set of suggestions on how to operate.  I took some great 360-degree footage of a weather balloon flight on a project with Discovery Channel, and here is what it looks like. 

What is a weather balloon payload? 

I have worked in Aerospace for over a decade, and the number of new terms and jargon I had to learn was unbelievable.  I aim to bring hands-on aerospace experience to everyone, but many people don’t know the term “weather balloon payload.”
A weather balloon payload refers to objects carried into the sky by a weather balloon.  A weather balloon flies using lighter-than-air gas such as helium or hydrogen.  So, the most important factor of a weather balloon payload is its weight, referred to as “total payload weight.”
A critical step for your weather balloon launch is to get a total payload weight, which is the total weight of everything flying under the weather balloon. This will determine the weather balloon you need and the parachute size to bring everything back to Earth safely.  This simple process involves gathering your weather balloon tracking device, camera system, any science experiments, the enclosure to fly everything, and placing it all on a precise scale to get the “total payload weight.”  A bathroom scale will not work.  Scale suggestions for determining “total payload weight.”


  • Kitchen Scale: Used to weigh food and can typically go up to a few pounds (1 kg) 
  • Fishing Scale: Typically has a hook attached and can measure precisely to 10 lb (5 kg) 
  • Luggage Scale: This can be found online or at travel stores to weigh luggage before a trip. 

For your first few weather balloon launches, I recommend having a small “total payload weight” of one to two pounds ( 0.5 / 1kg).  This makes the entire launch process easier and reduces the cost of the balloon and lift gas needed to send your balloon to the edge of space. 


How to buy a weather balloon?

I know from personal experience selecting the correct weather balloon to buy can be challenging.  Unlike party balloons, there are many different sizes of weather balloons that can be used for different types and weights of payloads. 

As a general rule when buying a weather balloon, the weight of the payload (everything flying under the balloon ) is the most important factor.  Most weather balloon manufacturers provide information on what size weather balloon to choose based on total payload weight.   
At StratoStar, we recommend using a lightweight payload 1lb  (0.5 kg) to start with, which will mean selecting a smaller balloon to keep your cost down and make managing your first weather balloon launch much easier.   So, the first thing you need to do before purchasing a weather balloon is determine the weight of the payload you will be flying. 
This includes the weight of all the items hanging under the balloon tracking device, enclosure, camera, batteries, and anything else you would like to fly.  After this, you can use the table below to select the balloon which works best for your needs : 

Weather Balloon Size by Payload Weight

Weather Balloon Payload Weight Weather Balloon Size
Pounds Kilograms Grams
0.5 – 1 lb 0.2 – 0.4 kg 200 g
1 – 2 lb 0.4 – 0.9 kg 300 g
2 – 5 lb 0.9 – 2.2 kg 600 g
5 – 7 lb 2.2 – 3.2 kg 800 g
7 – 10 lb 3.2 – 4.5 kg 1200 g
10 – 12 lb 4.5 – 5.4 kg 1500 g


This table allows you to select the correct size weather balloon for the payload you plan to fly.  The weather balloons are sold by how much they weigh after production.  Typically, the heavier the weather balloon, the larger its payload carrying capacity and burst diameter.

After you have completed a few launches, some advanced techniques will allow you to send your payloads to a higher altitude but will require more resources and time. 


Do weather balloons need a parachute? 

As with anything that goes up, it must come down.  This is also true for weather balloons and their payloads.  I have launched many different sizes of weather balloons and payloads.  In order to recover your payload, a soft landing back on Earth with a parachute is critical.

All weather balloons use a parachute typically flown between the balloon and the payload.   The weather balloon parachute is made of lightweight materials and automatically deploys after the balloon bursts.  The size of the parachute is directly related to the weight of the payload being flown. 

Selecting the correct weather balloon parachute depends on the total payload weight you plan to fly.  However, another important factor in selecting a parachute is the ground elevation of the area where you will be launching and recovering your weather balloon.   

Weather Balloon parachutes allow your payload to descend to the edge of space to the ground. However, the atmosphere increases in density exponentially, so the closer to the sea level, the more dense the air and the slower the parachute will fall.   If the area you are planning a weather balloon launch has a ground elevation of 5,000 ft to 10,000 ft  (1,500 m to 3,000 m) above sea level, you may need to select a larger parachute for your payload.  Here is a table you can use to estimate which size parachute you may need landing at sea-level: 

Weather Balloon Parachute Size by Payload Weight

Weather Balloon Payload Weight Parachute Size
Pounds Kilograms Diameter (inches)
0.5 – 1 lb 0.2 – 0.4 kg 24 inch
1 – 2 lb 0.4 – 0.9 kg 36 inch
2 – 5 lb 0.9 – 2.2 kg 48 inch
5 – 7 lb 2.2 – 3.2 kg 60 inch
7 – 10 lb 3.2 – 4.5 kg 72 inch
10 – 12 lb 4.5 – 5.4 kg 84 inch


This table allows you to select the correct parachute for the payload weight you plan on flying.  I have structured this to allow for approximately 1,000 ft/min (5 m/s) landing speed for each table category.

How much helium for a weather balloon?

The most critical factor in conducting a weather balloon launch is the amount of lift gas to use, typically helium or hydrogen.  I have learned that not having enough helium can cause the balloon to fly hours longer than expected. Here is what I wish I had known when I started flying weather balloons. 

As a general rule, the amount of helium needed for a weather balloon depends on the total weight of the weather balloon and payload, plus the desired “free-lift” (phantom weight) needed to make everything fly.  Each ounce (28g) of weight will require approximately one cubic foot of helium.

Once you know how much helium you need, securing lift gas is one of the most critical aspects of conducting a weather balloon launch.  The lift gas typically used is Helium, but many people also use Hydrogen.  Here is a chart for how much helium you will need:

Helium Needed for Weather Balloon Size and Payload Weight

Weather Balloon Payload Weight Weather Balloon Size Helium
Pounds Kilograms Grams Cubic Feet
0.5 – 1 lb 0.2 – 0.4 kg 200g 50 cu/ft
1 – 2 lb 0.4 – 0.9 kg 300g 75 cu/ft
2 – 5 lb 0.9 – 2.2 kg 600g 165 cu/ft
5 – 7 lb 2.2 – 3.2 kg 800g 212 cu/ft
7 – 10 lb 3.2 – 4.5 kg 1200g 270 cu/ft
10 – 12 lb 4.5 – 5.4 kg 1500g 320 cu/ft


It may seem obvious, but the larger the balloon and the heavier the payload, the more lift gas you will need for your weather balloon launch.  So, making your payload as light as possible and using a weather balloon just the right size for your launch will allow you to spend less on the lift gas, which can be the most expensive part of launching your own weather balloon. 

If launching a lightweight payload, which is 1-2 lb (0.5 to 1 kg)  and a small balloon, you can purchase helium from a party supply store or on Amazon.  

For heavier payloads > 2 lb (1 Kg), you must secure helium or hydrogen from an industrial gas vendor due to the larger volume of lift gas needed.  You will need to contact the vendor to rent a tank and purchase the amount of lift gas needed.  A common place to secure helium or hydrogen gas is through your local welding supply vendor, but can also be purchased from corporate industrial gas supply companies. 

If using helium or hydrogen tanks from an industrial gas supplier, you will need a gas regulator to fill the weather balloon.  This differs from the “party balloon” adapters, which would take more than an hour to fill a weather balloon.


Can you launch a weather balloon anywhere? 

I have launched weather balloons all over the United States. There are some important factors in selecting a weather balloon launch site.  Selecting where you launch your weather balloon will set the tone for the rest of the mission.

Launching a weather balloon anywhere will require an investigation into airspace restrictions using Aviation Charts and determining if there is enough open space about the size of a football field to fill the weather balloon.   Selecting public parks or parking lots are great locations to launch.  

After completing the steps above, you will need to decide on a few more aspects of the weather balloon launch.  This includes the launch site(s),  date, and time.  These factors can be used to run flight forecasts to see what the flight path of your balloon will look like.  Selecting a launch site has two important factors: 

  • Are there any airspace restrictions?
    • Look at the Aviation Charts or website to see what the airspace looks like in the area you plan to launch a weather balloon. 
    • Pick an area which is free of any airspace restrictions or issues
    • Away from airports and military installations. 
  • Is there enough space to conduct a weather balloon launch?
    • At StratoStar, we typically recommend a space about the size of a football field or a baseball diamond free of trees or power lines.
    • If there are ground winds when conducting your weather balloon launch, you will need some horizontal space for the balloon to take off. 


How to use a weather balloon flight predictor? 

In the early 2000s, we would walk out the door and launch the weather balloon without knowing where it was going to go.  Today, there are flight prediction tools we can use to give us a great estimate of the flight path of the balloon and where it might land. 

When using a weather balloon flight prediction tool, you will first enter a launch date,  location, and a few parameters on the weather balloon.  The tool will then estimate the balloon’s flight path and the landing location.   Typically, these tools can provide a forecast a few days into the future. 

One of the most significant factors affecting the distance the weather balloon travels is the jet stream, a narrow band of fast-moving air currents in the atmosphere.  In North America, during the winter months, the jet stream can travel over  200 mph (321 kph).  During the summer, this jet stream settles down, and the weather balloon flight distances are shortened.  Here is a tool that you can use to monitor the jet stream.  

When you are within four days of your launch date, you can start using flight forecasting tools to get an idea of the flight path of your balloon.  You can use tools like the one I have designed for StratoStar called StratoCast.  You will need the following information to start conducting flight forecasts:

  • Launch Site Location (Latitude, Longitude)
  • Launch Date
  • Launch Time
  • Ascent Rate (Usually 1,000 ft/ min or 5 m/s)
  • Payload Weight
  • Balloon Size
  • Parachute Size 

Using the information above, you will get a flight forecast for your upcoming weather balloon launch.  As you get closer to the specified launch date and time, your flight forecast will become more accurate.  When you are less than 12 hours from the launch time, this will likely be the most accurate forecast. 


How to chase a weather balloon? 

One of the most exciting parts of the weather balloon launch is chasing the balloon.  You feel like a storm chaser as you follow along on with the progress of the weather balloon on the map.  From my experience, there are a few important things to know about chasing a weather balloon. 

After releasing the weather balloon, pack up the launch site and jump in your vehicle.  Start driving to the estimated landing zone your flight prediction provided.  The balloon may fly in strange zig-zag patterns, but you can drive to the estimated landing zone and wait for it to land.

When you see your balloon on the map is near the estimated landing zone and no longer moving or has GPS tracking points stacking on top of one other, the weather balloon has landed, and now is the time to start planning your recovery. 


How to find a weather balloon? 

Over the last 16 years, I have used many methods to find weather balloons.  This can be an easy process where the weather balloon lands next to the road or can be complicated when it lands deep in the wilderness.  There are some important things I have learned over the years when finding weather balloons. 

As a general rule, to find a weather balloon, you will need the GPS coordinates of the landing location of the weather balloon.  Type the latitude and longitude of the landing location into a hiking GPS or smartphone map (which can work offline). Drive, then hike to the landing location.

Most of the time, the weather balloon and payloads will land on private property.  You will need to ask permission from the landowner to access the property to recover your weather balloon and payload.  I know this step seems intimidating, but over hundreds of weather balloon missions, we have met the greatest people and allowed access to the property.  In some cases, the landowner wanted to recover the payload for us.  I recommend telling them the story from the beginning of the project and showing them pictures from the launch.  Being kind and respectful goes a long way when meeting strangers. 

When hiking out to the landing zone of your weather balloon, I recommend taking a partner and letting someone know where you will be and when you will be back.  These are common outdoor practices.  Many times the locations you will be hiking are off the beaten path and it is important to stay safe and not put you and your team in danger.  You will need to use a hiking GPS or a phone with maps downloaded ahead of time to navigate to the final GPS location of the balloon.  Most smartphones will not work in remote locations for navigation as the applications typically require data services to load each map tile.  So you must download maps to your smartphone if you use this to recover the weather balloon. 

After you have located the weather balloon and payload, do not touch anything! Take pictures first from many angles, as there may be damage or information you can glean from how the balloon and payload landed.   You can determine if items were missing during flight or if part of the payload was tangled in the parachute.  Then go ahead and collect your weather balloon and payload.  

It is customary to share a meal with your team then and take a look at the flight data and video/pictures collected and start planning your next mission 🙂