HTC phone aboard a test balloon tracks flight to the stratosphere

An HTC Trophy smartphone aboard a high-atmosphere test balloon provided positioning data to scientists trying to figure out where it was going to land.

During the flight over southwest England last week the phone's GPS system recorded its location and downloaded it via the GSM mobile phone network, when the balloon was in range, according to the University of Southampton in England which conducted the experiment.

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That data was crunched by computers in Microsoft's Azure public cloud, and spotters on the ground tapped into the landing site projections via similar phones, according to the school's online launch diary.

During the flight, the helium-filled balloon rose to 59,832 feet before bursting as planned due to low atmospheric pressure at that altitude. A parachute deployed, and as the balloon descended the phone recorded its position and called it in. At that point the path of the payload was at the mercy of the winds.

While the scientists had predicted the flight path and landing zone ahead of time based on known atmospheric conditions, the phone positioning system narrowed down where the craft would actually touch down so recovery teams could locate it more easily.

The phone was running Windows Phone 7 operating system and a custom application called Sezog, which is a spinout company from the university. It was housed in a foam container that protected it from the extreme cold, which dropped below -50 degrees C.

Researchers wanted a light, low-cost device to handle the positioning data and the HTC phone fit the bill, the university says.

Eventually, the university's Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft program hopes to design a low-cost craft that can perform atmospheric observations in bad conditions. It says studying particles suspended in the air from volcanic eruptions would be one use of such a craft.

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