NEAR SPACE BALLOONING - STRATOSPHERIC PHOTOGRAPHY

MISSIONS

► LAUNCH 1 : CALMAR, IOWA TO CEDAR SPRINGS, MICHIGAN

DATE: Sunday, December 2, 2012
LAUNCH: 6:28 AM CST, Calmar, Iowa [ 43.173335, -91.867354 ]
ALTITUDE: Apx 100,000 - 110,000 feet
BURST: 9:56 AM CST (3 hours, 28 minutes)
LANDING: 10:51 AM CST, Cedar Springs, Michigan [ 43.18782, -85.50525 ]
DURATION: 4 hours, 23 minutes
DISTANCE: Apx 340 miles

THE STORYEQUIPMENTMAPS & DATAPHOTOSVIDEOLESSONS LEARNEDCOMMENTS


► THE STORY

Starting in 2012, I noticed a growing new phenomena online: the amateur "space" balloon video. Helium filled weather balloons are capable of reaching extraordinary altitudes. In the videos the curvature of the earth is visible and the sky completely black. Officially, it's a region known as "near space", but some of the images made it hard to tell the difference. It all began with an amusing video featuring a Lego Man "in space". Soon after, YouTube was littered with inspired copycats, including everything from beer cans in space to bobble heads and a Hello Kity doll. With a little Googling, I discovered the cost and technical obstacles weren't that high. New consumer-level GPS, cellular, and digital camera technologies had made it much simpler to do. I began to ask myself: why can't I try it?

In October, 2012 the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leapt off a balloon lofted to the edge of space, breaking a fifty year old record for highest jump. I watched it live, along with millions around the world. Inspired, I was finally galvanized into action.

Planning

Click to view largerThere's plenty of instruction available online covering the basics of a "near space" weather balloon mission. It starts with building a payload box, usually made from a styrofoam container, which houses the cameras and tracking devices. The box is connected by length of light rope to a radar reflector (a piece of cardboard covered in foil), which in turn is strung to a parachute, above which another line leads to the weather balloon. Naturally, there are many variations. Key to achieving the highest possible altitude, is using the right amount of helium for the size of the balloon and the weight of the payload. And as it turned out, finding helium proved to be the most difficult element of preparation. A global shortage had persisted for at least a year. In my area no welding shops or party stores had any, and if they did were not willing to sell it to me, but eventually I tracked down two M sized cylinders at a local gas supplier.

Two days before launch a similar project at Michigan State University failed when their payload fell into Lake Erie. Living in Milwaukee, I realized if I didn't want to lose mine in Lake Michigan, I'd have to travel far to the west. To predict the balloon's flight trajectory, I relied on several tools online created by Cambridge University's Space Flight program (CUSF). Supplied with a few simple variables they calculate ascent and descent rates, combine the data with weather forecasts, and spit out a flight path overlayed on a map. Based on my inputs, it appeared were the balloon launched from north-eastern Iowa, the payload should parachute down just north-west of Milwaukee, a two-hundred mile trip. A launch anywhere east of the Mississippi River seemed to guarantee a dunk in the lake.

Click to view largerOn the morning of Saturday, December 1st I set out with the aim of reaching Cresco, Iowa, population 3,900. By early afternoon I had passed Prairie du Chien and crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa at Marquette. By the time I reached Cresco in the mid-afternoon thick, pea soup fog had formed. At the county fairgrounds I scoped out a launch site, then headed over to a local motel, but they had no vacancies. In nearby Decorah, it was patiently explained, Luther College was having their annual Christmas concert. I was assured that every motel in the area was full.

Earlier, I had noticed a casino riverboat moored on the Mississippi. Quite tired by now, I headed back to Marquette through the fog, certain I could find a few options there. When I finally pulled up to the Frontier Motel, I was met by a man unloading a deer from the back of his truck. "Want a room?" he asked, and instructed me to wait while he hung up his prize. It was the first day of gun deer season in Iowa.

After a buffet dinner on the casino boat, I re-checked the CUSF prediction tool. I needed to be sixty miles further west. Cresco. What if I just launched the balloon from Marquette? I strolled down to the river bank, which was shielded from view by a tall berm. It was perfect. I could launch from here, but on second thought decided not to risk it. I resolved to drive back not to Cresco, but a smaller town further south called Calmar. There was a small community college in Calmar, and judging by Google Maps, it had a large, secluded parking lot.

In the morning a full moon would be setting as the sun rose into the sky. To get it on film from the balloon meant an early start.

The Launch

Click to view largerThere was little sleep that night. Every hour and a half, a slow-moving freight train screeched by the motel. At 3:30 a.m. I was up, and shortly after four, room keys left on the desk, on the road. The fog still thick, visibility almost nil, what should have been a forty-five minute drive lasted more than an hour. Somehow I got lost on a dirt road, but eventually found the way to Calmar. The parking lot was well lit. I put on an official looking neon construction vest, uncertain how it might appear to someone passing by: a lone figure behind a school, unloading gas tanks from the back of a car at 5 a.m.

Surprisingly, setting up for launch went smoothly. With the delicate balloon spread out carefully on a large tarp, I fitted a regulator to the first helium cylinder and a hose to the neck of the balloon. Without a flowmeter to gauge the volume of gas flowing, I used a trick I saw online. To achieve the ideal ascent rate for maximum altitude, you anchor the balloon down with an object equal to the weight of your payload, plus one additional pound. When the dead weight hovers in the air, you know you've got the right amount of helium in the balloon (see Lessons Learned).

After thirty minutes the balloon towered over the car, the dead weight floating neither up or down. Using 50lb line, I tied the payload box to the radar reflector, reflector to parachute, and chute to the balloon. About twenty feet separated the balloon from the payload. After starting up the cameras, Spot GPS, and cell phone, I activated several heat packs, then sealed the box with duct tape. Holding a video camera in one hand, the payload in the other, I strutted into the center of the parking lot, the orange parking lamps and a bright moon illuminating the scene. Exhausted and filled with nervous tension, I let go. It was an odd experience. With no fanfare and little drama the balloon rose silently into the air, direction south-east. After a few hundred feet it vanished in the fog. The time was 6:20 a.m. Sunrise was set for 7:20, moonset 10:40. I cleaned up the remaining detritus, heaved the mostly empty helium cylinders into the back of my car, and sped off into the dark.

The Chase

Click to view largerTo track the balloon in real-time I relied on the Spot GPS and Accutracking websites. After twenty anxious minutes I pulled over and checked both on an iPad. Aside of the signals sent while on the ground there was nothing. Discouraged, ten minutes later I checked again. Voilà! Both devices were successfully tracking. The balloon was heading along the predicted path at 33 mph, an altitude of 12,000 feet. I'd really done it!

As I neared Postville, the smart phone ceased updating the Accutracking site. It wasn't surprising. Cell towers are designed to work on a horizontal basis. A short while later an update appeared from the Spot GPS. The balloon was over Monona, about ten miles further east. However, the device doesn't provide altitude readings. Encouraged, I kept driving, but shortly after the iPad's wifi connection deteriorated.

Back in Marquette, I stopped outside the Frontier and hopped on their wireless network. A half hour had passed. The Spot GPS hadn't updated. Re-crossing the Mississippi into Wisconsin at Praire du Chien, I followed scenic Highway 60 east along the Wisconsin River. For a good hour the iPad couldn't make a connection. Then finally, fourteen miles west of Madison, I got online. The Spot GPS website had updated. The balloon had landed in Delavan, Wisconsin just east of Janesville. It was almost exactly the distance east from the launch site predicted by the CUSF program, but a hundred miles further south. No matter, I thought, the payload seemed to have parachuted down in a field just a few hundred yards off Interstate 43. I wondered how it looked to motorists below as it descended by parachute.

Buzzing on three double-shot espresso drinks, I headed towards Janesville, keeping one eye glued to the iPad. I couldn't fathom why the cell phone wasn't updating the Accutracking website. And the Spot GPS had signaled just once from the landing site. Near Janesville I pulled into a gas station. It was mid-morning. The sky was bright and sunny. After filling up, I checked for updates. There was a new Spot GPS signal. It had shifted. The payload had not landed in Delavan. As I zoomed out on the map the city name "Muskegon" appeared. I couldn't believe it. The balloon had crossed Lake Michigan! And it had either just landed, one-hundred and thirty miles east of my position, or was still heading further over the state of Michigan. I was shocked.

Click to view largerMonitoring the situation, one moment it appeared the payload might have crashed on a road, and another perhaps in someone's front yard. Finally, the signal stopped moving. I checked the AccuTracking site. The location corresponded with the Spot GPS. The payload had landed amidst some trees several hundred feet back from a house on a rural road just east of Cedar Springs (north of Grand Rapids), one-hundred and forty miles east of the CUSF prediction, and about three-hundred and forty miles from Calmar. The balloon had covered the distance in four and a half hours. However, this wasn't the most unbelievable thing. I knew only one person in the entire state of Michigan, an old roommate. His name is Jeremy and he lives in Greenville. The payload had landed just thirteen miles from his house. I didn't have his number. I checked Google. He was unlisted. I called his mother. Luckily, she had his cell, but said he might be in church. I thanked her, not explaining why I wanted to speak with him right at that moment. Pausing, I figured out what to say so I didn't sound like a lunatic and dialed the number. He didn't pick up. I took a deep breath and left a long message.

The Recovery

Click to view largerI had a choice, rely on a friend or drive six hours through Chicago traffic up into Michigan, and knock on a stranger's door with a bizarre story. I headed for Milwaukee. Given where the payload landed it seemed unlikely anyone would notice it right away. Meanwhile, I rang Jeremy every twenty minutes. No luck. It took another hour to get home. A short while later Jeremy finally returned my calls. Had he listened to his voicemail? No, he'd just seen my number flashing on his phone. Before continuing, I asked him if he was near a computer. He was. I said, "Prepare to have your mind blown," and directed him to the Spot GPS website. Jeremy sat down and pulled up the webpage. I explained what he was looking at. He agreed to drive over to the house immediately. Jeremy worked the night shift. Normally, he'd be in bed at this hour.

I waited to hear back. An hour later Jeremy called. They had found the payload. It was forty feet up a tree, hanging by the parachute. The home owner, it turned out, was an extremely nice woman named Sharon. She was the head of the local Cedar Springs Historical Society. Jeremy gave her my information, took a photo and headed home. It had surely helped having one local approach another with this unusual situation. I called Sharon, who indeed was very kind. Her daughter's husband had just retired from the Coast Guard and they had moved in while building a house nearby. He had tree climbing equipment. Sharon agreed to ask her son-in-law to get the balloon down and promised to FedEx the contents. I said I hoped they'd be safe in attempting to do so, and pledged to send payment for the postage as well as some souvenir Wisconsin cheese.

That evening Jeremy called in sick to work. Later, his wife took a look at the descent path. Had the payload traveled exactly three miles further, it would have landed in her uncle's yard.

The Aftermath

I was curious if anybody noticed the balloon coming down. In the early evening I searched Twitter for the phrase "weather balloon". The first result to come up was a tweet just six minutes old from a user called @nadamson. He tweeted: "Over 101,000 ft and going 145mph! In Illinois now!". There was a link to a Spot GPS webpage. Hours early @nadamson had also launched a high altitude balloon from Iowa, just east of Des Moines. It traveled roughly the same distance as my balloon and landed in a field west of Naperville, Illinois. This was too incredible. I replied to his tweet.

On Monday Sharon called to say they had decided to cut the tree down. The trunk was the diameter of a basketball, she said. The following Saturday FedEx delivered the payload box, radar reflector, and parachute, all undamaged.

In reviewing the film, perhaps most astounding of all was listening to the noise of the camera shutter clicking every fifteen seconds. Over the course of three hours the constant sound slowly faded to nothing, and not because the camera batteries died, but because at a certain point there was no more atmosphere for the sound waves to carry.


► EQUIPMENT

2000 gram balloon from Kaymont (sells Totex balloons from Japan), the most popular choice (I used the more expensive 2000 gram instead of the typical 1200g or 1500g in the hope of reaching a higher altitude)

70" Parachute from Top Flight Recovery in Spring Green, WI

Davis Emergency Deluxe Radar Reflector

  • Cost: $25
  • Website: purchased on Amazon.com
  • Note: per FAA FAR 101 regulations. Glad I used it since the balloon happened to go directly through a busy air cooridor. You could easily make your own with some cardboard and tin foil.

Spot GPS Personal Tracker Device

  • Cost: $120 for the device, $100 for 1 year of service
  • Website: http://findmespot.com
  • Note: You can do without this if you use a smart phone that has excellent coverage, but you run a risk without a backup device

Hamster Ball from Pet World in West Allis, WI

  • Cost: $6
  • Note: Used to build a gimbal to hold the Spot device so it always faces the sky

Samsung Android Smart Phone

  • Cost: $115 for the cheapest smart phone from US Cellular, $60 for 1 month of service

AccuTracking App for smart phone

Go Pro Hero 2 camera, easily the most commonly used camera for a project like this

  • Cost: $300
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: I bought the extra battery pack for more recording time for $40, as well as a 32gb SD memory card for $35. The camera does come out of the box with a battery and memory card.

Canon PowerShot a1100 IS (uses AA lithium batteries)

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: I bought a new 32gb memory card for $20, and most importantly used the CHDK software to hack the camera for fifteen second interval shooting. It's very important to use lithium batteries as they can still function in the extreme cold of the upper atmosphere.

Sony Handycam HDR-CX190, used for redundancy and to contrast the quality of video against that of the GoPro.

  • Cost: $270
  • Note: I bought an extra large NP-FV100 Rechargeable Battery Pack for $95, as well as a 32gb Sony memory stick for $95. The camera does come out of the box with a battery and memory card.

2 Proheat Reusable Hand Warmers, supersaturated liquid (doesn't require air to work) - used to heat the payload box

  • Cost: $13

4 HeatMax HOTHANDS warmers (requires air to work), I wedged them against the camera and phone batteries to keep them warm

  • Cost: $5

Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord, a Styrofoam cooler, and PVC plumbing pipe and hardware for the GPS gimbal, all from Home Depot on Capitol Ave. in Milwaukee

  • Cost: $30

Helium from Aero Compressed Gases in West Allis, WI -- the only place that had helium or would sell any to me (due to the shortage). I bought a $160 regulator from Weld Specialty Supply in Milwaukee for the gas cylinders, but you could probably rent one from a welding supply store if you looked hard enough. Many people just use the "party balloon" style filler/regulator that often comes with the cylinder, but it takes a long time to fill your balloon with that.

  • Cost: $170
  • Note: The cost would have been a bit less if I could have found the exact amount needed, I had two M size cylinders, and about half of one tank went unused. You can use hydrogen as well, but due to it's explosive nature, while a lot cheaper, it's not generally recommended for amateurs.

GRAND TOTAL: $1997

Driving to Iowa, gas, hotel, food counts as extra!
Cost: $120


► MAPS & DATA

  • Click here to download the predicted path Google Earth KML file (rename to .kml)
  • Click here to view the Spot GPS tracked flight path on a map
  • Click here to view the AccuTracking flight path on maps with altitude and speed data (Google Earth KML file - rename to .kml)
Spot GPS Map:

AccuTracking Map:


► LESSONS LEARNED

  1. Don't take the CUSF landing predictions as a precise guide, even with accurate inputs, the predicted landfall may be off by miles.
  2. If you purchased your balloon through Kaymont, consult with them about your plans. They can give you some excellent advice.
  3. Test your video cameras beforehand. I bought the largest batteries available for both the Sony HandyCam and the GoPro. However, they still didn't have the capacity to record the entire flight. I got back no video of the flight apogee, balloon burst, or descent into the trees.
  4. Don't use the waterproof housing on your GoPro camera. I coated the lens and waterproof case in RainX and used 5 GoPro anti-fog inserts. However, for much of the flight the lens still suffered from varying amounts of fogging. Fortunately, it cleared somewhere between sixty and seventy thousand feet.


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