Launch 3 went off with only a few hitches. My family was in town for an early Thanksgiving celebration and I put them all to work assisting with camera labeling, lens cleaning, picture taking, and anything else I could come up with. After two years of doing it all by myself it was nice to have a some extra hands laying around.
We spent the night before the launch making sure everything was ready. As stated above, we labeled each camera. Each memory card was also labeled to correspond to the camera it went in. The cards were all formatted and the cameras were all setup to start recording video when they turned on. Batteries were charged and payload layout was finalized.
We woke up and gathered the supplies and hit the road for Burnet TX. We were to meet Monroe and Stewart from Team Prometheus in Burnet for the launch. About halfway there it occurred to me to ask if anyone had grabbed the balloon. No. Fortunately, the other half of the launch crew at my house hadn’t left yet and they were able to grab the balloon and bring it with them.
We met up with Monroe and Stewart at Storms Restaurant for some breakfast and then headed to the park where we’d be launching from. We stood around chatting until the balloon arrived then started positioning equipment for the launch.
The payload ended up weighing about four pounds and consisted of six GoPro HD Hero cameras, one MT-AIO APRS GPS tracker, one custom made sensor pod (temp, humidity, location), and two LiPo batteries. The balloon used to carry the payload was a 1200 gram job from Kaymont.
A 1200 gram balloon is rather large and unwieldy to begin with. It was made more challenging by being a rather windy day. We ended up having to zip-tie two bedsheets and drape them over the balloon in order to hold it out of the wind while we filled it up.
About halfway through filling the balloon the hydrogen tank ran out. Fortunately, Burnet is where the hydrogen was originally sourced. Even more fortunate is that the gas supplier was only about a quarter mile from the park. A fresh hydrogen tank was acquired and we had resumed filling in under 30 minutes.
After the balloon was brought up to ~10 lb of free lift I checked the payload line to ensure everything was securely fastened and powered on the cameras. I ensured each camera beeped at me when turned on which indicated that they had started recording.
It was too windy to do a graceful launch. As I was feeding the line through my hands to grab the payload for launch the wind took the balloon and ran with it. The string whipped through my right index finger and left a long burn on the inside of the second and third joints. Since I was bent over clutching my hand I didn’t observe the balloon until several seconds after launch.
The balloon described a rather low initial trajectory as the wind was blowing north faster than it was ascending. While it was caught in this wind the payload was being given a vigorous shake about. Eventually it got out of this turbulent air and enjoyed a much smoother ascent.
Goodbyes and thank yous were expressed, then the chase team (myself, my brother, my father, and my brother’s wife) set out east for I-35, then north for the Salado area. The predictions we’d run had put the landing point in that area. We were hoping for a quick retrieval but things went a bit awry.
On its way up the transmitter had a 30 minute gap where it didn’t report anything. At 80k ft it gave a location update then went silent. We were up near Salado and communicating with a separate ground crew trying to figure out what happened or where it might be. We continued east from I-35 and ended up in the town of Holland.
I pulled into a parking spot near the civic center and went inside to ask if there was somewhere in the tiny town that I could find a wifi connection as I wasn’t receiving a data signal on my phone. There was only one person inside. She was getting what looked like Christmas decorations ready. I introduced myself and when she returned the same she introduced herself as the mayor of Holland, Mae Smith. I gave her a brief rundown of what we were doing and she directed us to the local school district.
At Holland High School we were given a table to work on and a computer to use in the computer lab. Keith Cabaniss, the teacher presiding while we were there, was more than helpful and we’re very grateful for his assistance. Kudos to all of the staff we interacted with while we tried to avoid disrupting active learning sessions.
We ran a few more predictions with hypotheses that we were able to form based on the patchy data we’d received from the balloon. We determined a search grid and, having printed out some maps, proceeded to wander most of the south-eastern quadrant of Bell County. After an hour of farmland and old barns we stopped and had a conversation with a man on a riding lawnmower. He directed us north to Little River-Academy to speak to a man named Ronnie White. Turns out, Ronnie White is the mayor of Little River-Academy. I spoke with the second mayor of the day and left my number in case someone in the area found the payload.
We then went home. At this point I had given the payload up as lost and was just hoping that someone would find it on their land and give me a call. We hung out and did family stuff for the rest of the day.
Around midnight I was getting ready to go to bed and on a whim I decided to check one more time for an update. There was one! About 6 hours prior it had sent 4 or 5 more packets. It was reporting itself on the ground in a field near Salado. I was tempted to drive up and get it right away, but prudence suggested otherwise. I was too exhausted and it would have been difficult to search for it in the dark.
0600. I wake up and go in to get my brother. We get dressed and hit the road. 0700 found us parked on the side of the road peering over a fence to see if we could spot the chute or the box. We drove to a house adjacent to the field and knocked. When nobody answered we drove back, hopped the fence, and walked straight to where the last report placed the payload. It was exactly where it had said it was. We took some photos, then marched back out.
When we got back I tore down the payload and took many pictures so as to have a record to use to try to determine what went wrong with the tracker. Everything looked intact, aside from one camera that had been knocked into the payload box on what we assumed was impact with the field. Subsequent examination of the video showed this to be the case.
Next post will detail the image stitching process and show the first hard results. For now, I’ll leave you with two really cool videos.
The first is the balloon burst at 96k feet as viewed from all three balloon-facing cameras.
Next we have the point of impact on the ground as seen by all six cameras.