In the Air Again

After many months of no balloon launches, High Altitude Solutions has hit the air again.  It is quite difficult for the students to find a common day to go out and launch a balloon.  The problem in the fall semester is (a) football, (b) football, (c) football, (d) homework, and (e) weather, in about that order.  In the winter semester, the first three are somewhat done (although today was the Bears Packers game), but the weather usually is much worse (i.e., cloud cover).  Today was a beautiful day for launching – clear skies as far as you could see.  The only issue was that it was about zero degrees outside when we launched.

We launched from the High School close to Binder Park Zoo, near Battle Creek.  The high school was extremely large.  One of the interesting things about launching balloons is seeing the diversity in schools in the state – some are very well funded (or appear to be), and some, not so much.  We have launched from both.

Here you can see the students all filling up the balloon and using the giant, homemade tarp to hold it down.  There are a bunch of new faces for this launch.  I am horrible with names, so I won’t even try to tell you theirs.  I do know that Alex is sitting on the frozen tundra working the tanks.  He is teaching one of the other students how to do it.  New students typically get the (sucky) job of holding the tarp (sorry students!)

The balloon is done now, and Alex is tying it off. Knots!

It took a while to finish the electronics and such.  We argued about batteries for a while.  A quick trip to the store to try to find Lithium AAA batteries (note – Shell does not sell Lithium AAA batteries), and we let her go!

There were four packages: (1) the HAS Microtrack; (2) an instrument package that measures the acceleration and rotation of the balloon; (3) the RAX tracker; and (4) the cell phone tracker that had a camera attached.  If you zoom in close you can see them (sorry that the picture is so far away, I forgot about the camera for a minute….)

We raced on to I-94 heading east.  About 20 minutes later, when the packages were at about 42,000 feet, we noticed that the HAS Mictrotrak was still going up, while the RAX tracker was reporting doing down.  That is a bit bizarre. After another 3-4 minutes, we felt confident that indeed this was occurring.  So, the trailer team (led by Kevin and Alex) kept going after the main package, while we broke away and backtracked to try to find the RAX tracker (plus the other packages attached to it).  Needless to say, the RAX tracker hit the ground pretty quickly without a parachute!  I would say that it took less than 10 minutes to fall from 42,000 feet to the ground.

We drove to about Moscow, MI, and took our cell phones out to try to find the tracker.  One of the problems with a free falling tracker is that it does not report its position often enough to be able to pin-point where it lands.  So, luckily, the cell phone tracker was in perfect working order, and was reporting its position flawlessly.  Sadly, the team’s cell phones did not seem to be working flawlessly, and it took us a few minutes to get organized.  I downloaded a Compass program for Android phones, and was soon within 10 feet of the thing.  But, being blind as a bat, I did not see it.  One of the students found it, and we quickly got back in the car to warm up.

Kevin and Alex reported that they successfully tracked the rest of the balloon package to someone’s field.  They were offered hot chocolate and interesting conversation after recovery.  Sadly, the balloon only made it to about 72,000 feet, which is not nearly as high as we would have liked.  But, considering that there was only one package on the balloon at the time, it really didn’t matter too much.

All in all, a somewhat successful day.  We got about 10 minutes of video from the Hero phone, which took the brunt of the drop.  We are hoping to get a new case for the phone from them, since it did break.  I think that I will call them up and ask for one – “It fell from 42,000 feet.  I should think that you could design a case that wouldn’t break when this occurs!  I thought your camera was for extreme picture taking!” Hopefully they can take a joke….

Kevin et al., will upload the video to uTube later.  I will link to it here.

Update: Here is the link!

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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