NEAR SPACE BALLOONING - STRATOSPHERIC PHOTOGRAPHY

MISSIONS

► LAUNCH 3 : MOHAVE DESERT (CA-NV-AZ)

DATE: Monday, February 18, 2013
LAUNCH: 6:00 AM PST, Chicago Valley, Nopah Range near Shoshone, California [ 36.002018, -116.191288 ]
WEIGHT: 5 lbs (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: Apx 100,000 to 105,000 feet
BURST TIME: 7:35 AM PST
LANDING: 8:46 AM PST, Squaw Peak, Detrital Valley, Arizona [ 35.88882, -114.44057 ]
DURATION: 2 hours, 46 minutes
DISTANCE: 98 miles


THE STORYEQUIPMENTMAPS & DATAPHOTOSVIDEOLESSONS LEARNEDCOMMENTS


► THE STORY

Six weeks after plucking a balloon payload from a snow covered field in rural Indiana, I found myself in the Nevada desert with plans to launch a balloon over Las Vegas. The logistics proved complicated. Surrounding the city are rugged mountains and vast stretches of barren wasteland. Nellis Air Force Base sits on the north-east side of town, and other MOAs (Military Operating Area) cover the skies as far west as Mount Charleston. Smack in the middle of the city is McCarran International Airport and to the east is Lake Mead, and beyond that the Grand Canyon. Finding a flight path near the city, but dodging the restricted airspace, and with a landfall somewhere accessible, would be like threading a needle.

Flying Apple Space Technologies is the only sizeable high altitude ballooning group active in the Las Vegas area. But they had never sent a balloon up close to the city itself. After studying aeronautical charts, Google Maps, topos, and modelling flight trajectories with tools online, it appeared were the winds just right, such a flight might be possible. But I would need to travel to California to launch the balloon.

Planning

Click to view larger The first step was constructing a new payload box small enough to carry on the plane. Once built, I carefully deconstructed it, unsure what the TSA might think looking at x-rays of a box fitted out with electronics, batteries, and wires.

The next hurdle was finding helium in Las Vegas. The name that kept popping up online was a business called Mister Balloon. I called and spoke with Mr. Balloon himself, Jon Dorsey. He suggested I was unlikely to find helium elsewhere and quoted me a price twice as much as I was used to paying. I'll let you know, I said. I tried party supply stores, welding shops, and gas suppliers, but none had any helium for sale. Resigned, I called Mister Balloon back and reserved a 219cf cylinder. He said I could pick it up when I arrived, a Sunday morning.

After landing at McCarren airport, I made my way to the rental car lot, where a Korean man with a set of golf clubs was arguing with the attendant. He was intent on snagging the last SUV, a Jeep Liberty, which I had purposely booked. Fortunately, he was placated with a Dodge Charger. An hour later I was sipping coffee in a pleasant gated community at Jon Dorsey's home. It was sunny and warm. He re-stated what I'd discovered, which was that the only group in Vegas doing these kinds of launches flew well south of town near Jean or Primm. Mr. Balloon gave me some general advice and helped load the heavy helium cylinder into the SUV. Then it was off to California.

Click to view largerThe launch site lay just over the border from Pahrump, Nevada near Death Valley, California. From there an east wind could carry a balloon high over Las Vegas, far above the restricted airspace, across the Colorado River, and into Arizona, with a landfall a few miles south of Lake Mead. So long as the payload cleared the Mount Wilson Wilderness by the Hoover dam on the way down, the probable landing zone had enough backroads that with luck I might retrieve it without a day long hike in the desert.

After checking into a hotel in Pahrump, I drove across the state line on 372/178 and exited onto Chicago Valley Road. The Nopah Range Wilderness Area sat just to the east. A quarter-mile down the unpaved route a few acres of desert had been cleared of brush; a fine launch site. I returned to Pahrump, confident I could find my way back the next morning in the dark. Sunrise was set for 6:29 a.m. To get the balloon in the air well beforehand meant a four o'clock start.

The Launch

Click to view largerReturning to the Chicago Valley early the next morning a single 18-wheeler passed me in the dark, heading east. Arriving at the launch site, I was struck by the incredible silence. The skies were absolutely clear; more stars visible than I'd seen in years. As I unloaded the Jeep, a meteor streaked across the horizon.

By 5:30 the helium cylinder was empty and the balloon hovered impatiently in the air. Thankfully, it wasn't cold out. With the payload box finally secure I started up the Spot GPS, a smart phone running the Accutracking app, three still cameras, and a video camera. After activating three heat packs, I secured the lid of the payload box with duct tape and a line of rope. The sky was lightening rapidly. At exactly 6:00 a.m. the balloon shot into the air trailing the twenty-foot payload stack.

The Chase

Click to view largerThe latest landing prediction had the payload parachuting down by the Colorado River in the jagged, inaccessible mountains that rise up on both sides of the river. But going by past experience, the predictions always seemed to show a landfall short of the actual result. Precisely why was unclear. This time around I was using a smaller parachute. Exactly how it would factor remained to be seen.

Back in Pahrump, I stopped at the hotel to check out. While there I powered up an iPad and checked the Spot GPS and Accutracking websites. Both were registering live data transmitted from the payload box. So far the balloon was on the predicted track, heading due east. Back on Highway 160 I drove on toward Las Vegas. When the wifi reception was good I could monitor the balloon's progress. Nearing the city, I could see it was approaching Enterprise, a little further north than expected, and directly in line with Lake Mead.

Forty-five minutes later, I reached Boulder City and stopped at a 7-11. While munching on an egg salad sandwich, I pulled up the Spot GPS website; the smart phone had long since lost connectivity. The balloon had swung south a bit and was now almost directly overhead. I sat there and waited. Twenty minutes passed with no new signals. I realised the balloon must have exceeded the altitude at which it can communicate, meaning it had begun the final ascent. That was good news. Boulder City is sufficiently east that a landing somewhere well into Arizona seemed assured. I hopped in the Jeep and continued south-east on Highway 93, crossing into Arizona on the new bridge by the Hoover Dam.

Click to view largerMount Wilson loomed large from the Arizona side of the Colorado River. I prayed the payload cleared the ridgeline. Fifteen miles into the state, I pulled over at the junction of Highway 93 and Temple Bar Road. As I sat there new signals appeared on the Accutracking website, roughly seven and half miles east of my position. It looked like the payload had landed just below Squaw Peak, a cone-shaped 3,200 foot mountain, far out in the Detrital Valley. Incredibly, judging by the map, a two-track dirt road, branching off Temple Bar, led right past the landing site, perhaps by just a few hundred feet.

But did the Accutracking data correspond with the Spot GPS? The website wouldn't load. Flustered, I sped south toward Dolan Springs in search of a stronger wifi signal. Halfway there a lonely tourist trap came into view: the "World Famous" Last Stop. I parked, strode up to the cashier, and explaining it was an emergency, asked if they had a computer with an internet connection. "No," she said, "but you can use the wifi in the bar," and gave me the access code. Perfect. Sure enough, the Spot GPS was signalling from the same area under Squaw Peak. I made a call to let someone know where I was going, hopped in the Jeep, and raced back toward Temple Bar Road. It was here in the Detrital Valley that Chris McCandless, in a story made famous by the book Into the Wild, had abandoned his car and burned all his money.

The Recovery

Click to view largerThe two-track out to Squaw Peak, a Bureau of Land Management route, was too rough for cars. Having the Jeep paid off. I made my way slowly, careful to avoid washouts, but repeatedly scraped the SUV on creosote bushes lining the way. I stopped at the foot of Squaw Peak and woke up the iPad. Somehow the webpage with the Spot GPS map had been closed, and wifi was unavailable. Fortunately, the Accutracking page pin-pointing the landing site was still open. The payload was sitting in the middle of a wash just a few hundred yards away on the west side of the mountain. Finding it should be easy, I thought.


Click to view largerThe valley floor was dotted with spiky plants and volcanic rocks littered the surface. I criss-crossed the area on foot, keeping one eye open for rattlesnakes. But I couldn't find the box. Scanning the wash with binoculars revealed nothing. I spotted horse shoe prints in the sand. Could some riders have stumbled across the payload and taken it? That seemed paranoid. After what felt like hours, but was only thirty minutes, I gave up and trudged back to the Jeep. The road crossed a small rise just to the east. I drove there and tried the iPad again. The Spot GPS website came up. It pointed to a location slightly off from the Accutracking map.


Click to view largerI dug out a hand-held GPS unit, plugged in the coordinates, and set back out. After twenty minutes of searching, I stumbled on the payload, the bright yellow parachute flapping in the wind. The box was lying upside down next to a Yucca plant. Suddenly my cell phone rang. It was my brother. He was at LaGuardia airport in New York City. As I rolled the box over I said, "I wish you could see where I am."


► EQUIPMENT

2000 gram Hwoyee balloon, Chinese made (Kaymont was out of stock)

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

Davis Emergency Deluxe Radar Reflector

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: purchased on Amazon.com
  • Note: per FAA FAR 101 regulations. You could easily make your own with some cardboard and tin foil.

Spot GPS Personal Tracker Device

  • Cost: already owned
  • 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

Samsung Android Smart Phone, from US Cellular

  • Cost: already owned, $60 for 1 month of service

AccuTracking App for smart phone

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

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: Using a 64gb SD memory card

New Trent iTorch IMP52D 5200mAh External Battery Pack

Canon PowerShot A1100 IS (uses AA lithium batteries), positioned for landscape photos

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: I 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.

2 x Canon PowerShot A3300 IS, one positioned for portrait photos, the other for landscapes

  • Cost: already owned
  • Note: Using CHDK I found the battery will last almost 3 hours with the exposure interval set to 15 seconds and the camera settings tweaked to conserve power.

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

  • Cost: already owned

2 HeatMax HOTHANDS warmers (requires air to work)

  • Cost: $2.50

Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, tarp, scissors, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord, a Styrofoam cooler, all from Home Depot

  • Cost: $30

219 cf Helium from Mister Balloon, Las Vegas, NV

  • Cost: $400
  • Website: http://www.misterballoon.com
  • Note: The cost was twice as much as what I typically pay for the same amount in Milwaukee. However, after calling many other outlets in Vegas, Mister Balloon seemed to be the only game in town.

GRAND TOTAL: $825.40

Flying to Las Vegas, car rental, gas, hotel, food counts as extra!
Cost: $700


► MAPS & DATA

  • Click here to download the CUSF predicted flight path (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)
  • Click here to download the University of Wyoming predicted flight path (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)
  • Click here to view the Spot GPS tracked flight path
  • Click here to view the AccuTracking flight path

Spot GPS Map:

AccuTracking Map:


► LESSONS LEARNED


  1. Don't use a swivel hook on top of your payload box, crosswinds at lower altitudes had the payload box spinning too much causing a lot of blurry photos.
  2. Tilting the cameras down at an angle captures more interesting images, and provides a better balance between land and black sky in your photographs.


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