NEAR SPACE BALLOONING - STRATOSPHERIC PHOTOGRAPHY

MISSIONS

► LAUNCH 5 : MICHIGAN

DATE: Sunday, September 22, 2013
LAUNCH: 7:16 AM EST, Seul Choix Point, (Upper Peninsula) MI [ 45.921764, -85.912886 ]
WEIGHT: 6 lb, 8 oz (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 105,000 feet
BURST TIME: 9:27 AM PST
LANDING: 10:14 AM EST, Elmira Township, (Lower) MI [ 45.050056,-84.802769 ]
DURATION: 2 hours, 58 minutes
DISTANCE: 85 miles


THE STORYEQUIPMENTMAPS & DATAPHOTOSVIDEOLESSONS LEARNEDCOMMENTS


► THE STORY

Heading out of Milwaukee, on the way to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a balloon launch, I had no idea the trip ahead would involve an 875 mile circumnavigation of Lake Michigan. Approaching the interstate I happened to glance up. A foil party balloon floated a hundred feet above. Was it a sign?

Planning

Unlike Launch 1, which had lifted off in Iowa, unexpectedly crossed Lake Michigan, and ended up dangling from a tree near Grand Rapids, this time I wanted to send a balloon over the lake on purpose. Given the heavy forestation in Michigan, I assumed the payload would once again land in a tree. Being prepared was important. I packed two axes, a saw, a tree-branch trimmer on a fifteen foot extendable pole, and plenty of rope. Reaching the landing site might involve a long slog through the woods, so I readied a pack with warm, waterproof clothing, food, water, and other supplies.

Originally, the plan had been to launch the balloon from the west side of Green Bay in Wisconsin, fly over the Door Peninsula, across the lake, above Grand Traverse Bay, and land somewhere in Michigan between Gaylord and Grayling, a distance of roughly 125 miles. But as the launch date approached, the jet stream shifted south-east, forcing me to consider launch sites further and further north, until finally, the original idea was clearly impossible. Examining the coastline along Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I found an ideal launch site just east of Manistique; the parking lot of a historic lighthouse at Seul Choix ("Only Choice") Point.

The next challenge was finding helium, always a scarce resource. Without Congressional action, the National Helium Reserve was set to close in a few weeks and I wondered if this would add to the problem. I called up a previous supplier, but for a change they were empty-handed. A frantic phone session ensued. I tried party stores, welding shops, and industrial gas suppliers all throughout south-eastern Wisconsin. No luck. Finally, when I thought I'd exhausted all the options, I found a small gas supplier, just ten minutes from work. They had exactly one 219cf cylinder. That was the good news, they told me. The bad news: it will cost $300. But that was hardly an issue. I'd spent much more on helium in the past.

Without the luxury of a long weekend, the window of opportunity was narrow. That coming Saturday as the sun rose the moon would be setting, making for a dramatic combination. However, toward the end of the week the forecast for Saturday had changed to cloudy. Clear skies were now predicted for Sunday. With a Saturday start I would have had two whole days to launch and track the balloon, recover the payload, and then get home in time for work on Monday. A Sunday launch meant doing it all in one day. A lot of luck would be needed.

The Launch

Click to view largerI reached Manistique early Saturday afternoon and checked into a motel before reconnoitring the launch site. The Seul Choix Point lighthouse stands at the end of a four-mile long unpaved road, lined with modest vacation cottages, about twenty-miles east of town. Below the lighthouse a large gravel parking lot sheltered by conifers overlooks a bay. In the gift shop, I had just one question: does anybody still live out here? The place hasn't had a resident in decades, they said. After a short walk on a beach consisting entirely of zebra mussel shells, I drove back to Manistique.

At 5:00 a.m. the phone rang with a wake-up call. I'd already been up for fifteen minutes. After downing a cup of coffee and a Pop Tart, I headed out. It was 38 degrees, the sky partly cloudy, no stars visible. But by the time I reached the parking lot at the lighthouse, the clouds had thinned enough for the moon to illuminate the grounds. Inflating the balloon passed without difficulty, though in the cold the skin on my knuckles cracked and bled as I tied it off. Before I knew it, over an hour had elapsed. It was almost light, but by now the skies had completely clouded over. So much for forecasts. There was no choice but to proceed. After starting up the Spot GPS tracking device, a smart phone running the Accutracking app, and four cameras, I carefully sealed the payload box with duct tape and quickly let the thing go. In just a couple of minutes the balloon and payload stack disappeared into the clouds.

The Chase

Click to view largerIt was a three-hour drive from Seul Choix Point to Gaylord, Michigan. The balloon would be in the air for most of that time. At the junction with Highway 2, I tried accessing the Spot GPS and Accutracking websites on an iPad. There was no wifi available. Operating in the blind, I continued east. Eventually, a single plot showed up on the Spot GPS website, but it had been registered while the device was still on the ground. Forty-five minutes passed. In previous launches there had never been such silence from the Spot GPS device during the ascent phase. And unfortunately, the Accutracking website, registering data from the smart phone, also displayed just one update from the ground. I drove on, constantly refreshing both sites. At last a Spot GPS update appeared. The balloon was out over Lake Michigan, just south of Beaver Island, and right on course. Unbelievably, everything was working as planned.

Click to view largerBy the time I reached the Mackinac Bridge the sky had mostly cleared, but it was hard to tell if similar conditions persisted further south where the balloon was traversing the lake. With great relief, another Spot GPS signal appeared. The balloon had crossed the lake and was over Charlevoix, but there was no knowing if it was going up or coming down. I continued south, now on I-75. An hour passed with no updates. Finally, approaching Gaylord, a Spot GPS signal came in. The balloon was above Walloon Lake, south of Petosky. I wondered if the payload had actually fallen into the lake. After all, it was a styrofoam box, and might float for a while before water found its way inside through the cutouts for the cameras. Either way, I would know as soon as the next signal came in, or didn't.

Arriving in Gaylord, I pulled into a gas station and fueled myself up with an iced coffee drink and a granola bar. I took out the iPad and waited. Thankfully, it wasn't too long before another signal appeared. The payload was heading directly toward my position. Ten minutes passed. Another update, a little closer now. I switched the map to "satellite" view. The latest position appeared over a tree next to a house bordered by a large lawn and thick woods. I started off in that direction. Four miles later, at the junction of Highway 32 and Route 4, I pulled over and checked the Spot GPS website. Another update, the same place. The payload had landed. I was five minutes away.

The Recovery

Click to view largerThe payload had come down next to a house on West Lake Drive, an unpaved street off Camp 10 Road. As I rounded a corner, the property came into view. The bright orange parachute was visible hanging in the lower branches of a huge tree just feet from the house. As I pulled up, two dogs came bounding out of an open garage. A man stepped out, calling them off. I exited the car, apologized for the disturbance, and said "You didn't happen to notice the parachute in your tree, did you?" He had not.

The homeowner, Jeff, was happy to help. While he fetched a tall ladder, I grabbed the tree branch trimmer from my car along with a tarp. His two young daughters appeared, snapping photos with their phones. Teetering from the top of the ladder I could just reach the parachute with the trimmer. I hooked a line and tugged, while below the two girls stood holding the tarp, ready to catch the payload box. With a little effort it all came loose and tumbled into the tarp. I climbed down and opened the box. Everything was intact. After taking a minute to explain what each device was for, I thanked everyone, packed up, and drove off. The entire operation had taken no more than fifteen minutes, though judging by their faces, I speculated it might take Jeff and his girls a bit longer before they completely digested what had just happened.

The Aftermath

Click to view largerHow to get home? Drive north back through the Upper Peninsula, go south under Lake Michigan and through Chicago, or travel across the lake? A quick check on the iPad showed the next voyage on the SS Badger, which steams between Ludington and Manitowoc, wouldn't arrive in Wisconsin until nearly midnight. However, the high-speed Lake Express leaving from Muskegon and traveling directly to Milwaukee was departing in a couple of hours, but it turned out to be fully booked. Whether going north or south the distance home was almost identical. If I went through Chicago, I told myself, I could probably find a farm stand on the way selling Honey Crisp apples and Michigan peaches. I opted for Chicago. South of Holland I found a fruit stand, along with a shop selling pasties. All in all I'd been very lucky.


► EQUIPMENT

2000 gram balloon from Kaymont sells Totex balloons from Japan, the most popular brand

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

Davis Emergency Deluxe Radar Reflector

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, $70 for 1 month of service
  • Failed as a backup due to a lack of coverage in the landing zone

AccuTracking App for smart phone

Go Pro Hero 2 camera

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: Easily the most commonly used camera for a project like this. Used a 64gb SD memory card as well as the additional BacPac battery

Pentax k-01 w/28mm SMC manual focus lens, positioned for landscapes, ten second intervals

  • Cost: $436
  • Purchased off eBay

Canon PowerShot G12 positioned for landscapes, ten second intervals

  • Cost: already owned

2 x Canon PowerShot A3300 IS, one positioned for landscapes, one for portraits

  • 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

Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, velcro strips, tarp, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord (all from Home Depot)

  • Cost: $30

219 cf Helium from Sheeley Service, Wauwatosa, WI

GRAND TOTAL: $1166

Gas, hotel, and food count as extra!
Cost: $217


► MAPS & DATA

CUSF Trajectory Prediction:

Spot GPS Map:



Click here to download the data (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)

Accutracking Map:


► LESSONS LEARNED

  1. In order to have at least one camera last the entire flight use the extra, external BacPac battery on your GoPro, or include a Canon Powershot A1100 IS, which can last 14 hours on lithium batteries.
  2. Try and have a three day launch window to deal with inclement weather
  3. Test out new cameras in a freezer ahead of time in order to uncover any problems with cold.


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