NEAR SPACE BALLOONING - STRATOSPHERIC PHOTOGRAPHY

MISSIONS

► LAUNCH 7 : IOWA

DATE: Sunday, February 16, 2014
LAUNCH: 6:53 AM CST, Storm Lake, IA [ 42.626581,-95.232747 ]
WEIGHT: 6 lb (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 108,674 feet [ 42.17457, -93.18967 ]
BURST: 8:56 AM CST [ 42.17457, -93.18967 ]
LANDING: 9:09 AM CST, Marshalltown, IA [ 42.05289, -92.93910 ]
TOP SPEED: 131 mph, 212 kph
TEMPS: High: 32.9 F (.5 C), Low: -6.7 F (-21.5 C)
DURATION: 2 hours, 16 minutes
DISTANCE: 130 miles


THE STORYEQUIPMENTMAPS & DATAPHOTOSVIDEOLESSONS LEARNEDCOMMENTS


► THE STORY

Looking ahead to a long weekend in February, I wondered if I should launch a balloon mission. Past experience had proved, working outside with bare hands in the winter to launch a payload into near-space isn't necessarily all fun. The weather is unpredictable, the cold can leave your fingers cracked and bleeding. And if the payload lands somewhere inaccessible or up in a tree, it might mean trudging through the snow far from a road with little daylight remaining. Travelling somewhere warm seemed like a better idea, but the decision was made by someone else. At the end of January I received an e-mail from an IT consultant in Massachusetts named Paul. He wanted to promote a business project by filming a logo from the edge of space with the black sky and curvature of the Earth in the background. It's been done a number times, but never by me. Despite having never lost a payload, I explained, there were no guarantees. We reached an understanding.

Planning

The budget didn't cover travel, so I'd have to do it somewhere in the Midwest, preferably only a day's drive from home. It was more important than ever that I not lose the payload. It had to be a routine flight. This meant finding somewhere rural, with few trees, and crisscrossed by roads. Iowa seemed perfectly suited. The state consists almost entirely of farmland and open prairie; roads neatly dividing it into a grid of mile wide boxes. I had launched a balloon from Iowa before, but with the intention of a landfall in Wisconsin, though that wasn't how it worked out.

At the office a co-worker received a delivery of some frozen fish. The thick styrofoam container was perfect for a payload box. That settled, the next step was figuring out the video cameras. Redundancy was called for. Paul's logo would be filmed using two GoPro cameras, each at opposite ends of the box, facing separate installations of the logo, which would be affixed to stiff foam board and attached to the end of a rod sticking a foot out from each side. There was enough room left over for two still cameras. Naturally, after everything was prepared, Paul decided to change the logo. I re-did the installation. A few days later, we needed to change it again. And then just days before the launch once more.

Click to view largerOn a map I plotted out a hundred mile wide by fifty mile high landing zone between Fort Dodge and Waterloo in the north, and Des Moines and Iowa City to the south. Amidst that entire vast almost treeless expanse lay just a single sizeable settlement; Marshalltown. A day before leaving, the flight trajectory program predicted a landfall about twenty miles south-east of there. It would be a bit like playing golf on a hundred-fifty mile long hole.

The Launch

I left Milwaukee first thing Saturday morning, an eight-hour drive lay ahead. Partly cloudy skies were forecast for Iowa the next morning, with mostly cloudy predicted for the rest of the day. That meant a 5 a.m. start for a sunrise launch. Monday was a holiday. If anything went wrong there'd be a cushion.

A snow storm was heading across Iowa toward Wisconsin. After driving through Madison and across the Driftless region, a rolling white, winter wonderland, I crossed into Iowa at Dubuque, which had an attractive collection of old brick buildings, warehouses, and light-industry. Near Dyersville I passed the Field of Dreams, which this time of year was more snow-covered corn stubble. The landscape was flat and treeless. As may be a common affliction with anyone who has sent one too many balloons into the stratosphere, the sight of a cell tower, grain silo, or particularly tall tree provoked anxiety as I imagined how I'd have to get a payload out of it. But Iowa really did look perfect, and perhaps unwisely I congratulated myself for the foresight and planning.

Click to view largerOnce past Waterloo the storm finally appeared. Unobstructed prairie winds blew the snow into near white-out conditions. Traffic slowed. Snow plows kicked up so much powder visibility was reduced to mere feet. It didn't let up until Fort Dodge where the sky cleared a bit and the temperature rose into the forties. There was little snow on the ground in western Iowa. Perhaps it had all been blown east.

To hit the landing zone the balloon had to lift off somewhere between Storm Lake and Le Mars. On reaching Storm Lake, I parked at a small water park hotel. The town showed it's back to the prairie, instead facing the unusually large lake for which it's named. Carrying an iPad, I walked into the lobby and asked the receptionist for their wifi password. Once online, I loaded the landing predictor and keyed in a few variables. The program indicated a launch from Storm Lake at 7 a.m. the next morning would result in a landing south-east of Marshalltown, near Grinnell. There was no need to drive further. The weather forecast still called for partly sunny skies at dawn.

Click to view largerSwitching to Google Maps I studied a satellite view of Storm Lake. The shoreline was dotted with public parks, but none were secluded enough to avoid attracting attention. Perhaps it was just paranoia, or that a man with a rifle had approached me as I set up for the previous launch, but somehow I just preferred to do it out of sight. A large marina was situated on the south-west side of the lake. It looked ideal. Back in the car, I drove through town and around the lake. A half dozen pickups sat parked at the marina. Out on the lake ice fisherman were camped in shacks. I strolled onto the foot-thick grey ice. A gust of wind filled the air with the foul smell of hog farms. A small warehouse sat next to the marina. I could set up behind it. At worst I might be discovered by someone carrying a fishing rod.

I drove back into town and checked into a motel on East Milwaukee Avenue. I wanted to tell Paul everything was on track, but checking my e-mail I saw he had sent me a message. The subject: New Logo. I opened the e-mail. Attached was a completely new version. It was now after 4 p.m. on a Saturday. In Storm Lake. Iowa. I thought, where on earth can I find a place open at this time, here, able to make color prints? Flustered, I hammered out a reply. He quickly responded. If we went with what I had now, Paul couldn't use the footage. Frantic, I jumped on Google, searching every turn of phrase for office, supply, print, and copy, and then I hit on a place, a business called Color-ize. They handled all types of custom graphics and printing from banners to wedding cards. I dialed the number and a woman picked up. I explained the situation. "We're closed on Saturdays," she said, but after a brief pause, relented. "I'll come down and open up the store." I copied the new logo to a thumb drive and rushed out the door. It took just minutes to get to the shop, which was five blocks away near a small grain elevator. I couldn't believe my luck.

Lona, the owner of Color-ize, knew exactly what she was doing. It wasn't long before I had prints of the new logo. She told me her nephew had once launched a high altitude balloon, and she was familiar with the concept. I wondered if he was Nate Adamson, an Iowa man who over a year earlier had launched a weather balloon from the state the same day I had--something I only discovered later that day when searching Twitter for reports of weather balloon sightings. Given how the universe sometimes seems to work, this idea didn't seem so far-fetched. That very same launch my balloon had crossed Wisconsin, floated over Lake Michigan, and landed in a tree just thirteen miles from my only friend in the state, who helped retrieve it.

At 5 a.m. the next morning the phone in the motel room rang with a wakeup call. I had slept fitfully, perhaps only nabbing four hours of real rest. I stumbled into the lobby, then returned to my room, cup of coffee in hand. The landing prediction hadn't changed, but the forecast now called for mostly cloudy skies. I knew it would be sunny up top, of course, but it was a shame I wouldn't get any pictures of the ground.

I arrived at the marina at a quarter to six. It was 14 degrees out and dark. Hidden from view behind the warehouse, I dragged the heavy cylinder of helium from the back of my car and laid out the fragile balloon on a large tarp. I had constructed a new balloon filler hose and hoped it didn't leak, but with all the hissing noises coming from the helium tank, the sound of a leak could have been masked. Passing my numbed fingers over the fittings, it was impossible to differentiate between the light breeze and any escaping gas. After thirty minutes the balloon floated overhead, seemingly full, the cylinder empty. I tugged on the tether holding it down and felt a familiar level of resistance. In the previous launch I had been blind-sided with impure helium, the balloon had gone "floater", and I had to chase it all the way from Arizona into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

With everything strung together, I switched on a Spot GPS tracker, flight computer from High Altitude Science, the GoPro video cameras, and two still cameras. In the cold the zip ties securing various attachments kept snapping and the duct tape sealing the payload box wouldn't stick. As a precaution, I wrapped a length of line around the box to keep the lid on. Worried the whole thing might come undone, I released the balloon. It quickly disappeared into the low clouds. The time was 6:53 a.m. Sunrise was set for 7:21. The moon was setting simultaneously. In the pale dawn light, I wondered what it looked like above the clouds.

The Chase

Ten minutes later, back in the motel, I checked the Spot GPS website, which would display the position of the balloon on a map, with updates appearing every ten minutes. The only signal showing had been transmitted when the payload was still on the ground. I fired off an e-mail to Paul, packed up, and checked out.

Leaving Storm Lake I passed an enormous Tyson meat-packing plant on the outskirts of town. After travelling south on 71, I turned east on Highway 20. The iPad sat by my side and every few minutes I refreshed the Spot GPS webpage, but no new signals appeared. Lately, updates seemed to have begun appearing on the Spot GPS site at a slower pace. I wondered if it was planned obsolescence. Spot had introduced a new version, more frequent updates being one new feature.

Finally, after more than an hour anew signal appeared. The balloon was just west of Ames, right on track. Amazingly, all the cogs where turning. Just past Fort Dodge I turned south on I-35, then thirty miles later in Ames east on Highway 30, direction Marshalltown. I had almost caught up with the balloon, which by now had likely slowed after passing through the jet stream. Four more Spot GPS updates appeared, the latest just ten miles west of Marshalltown. Two hours had passed. I was expecting the payload to land within a half hour, but by the time I reached Marshalltown the Spot GPS was silent. With the three-hour mark approaching, I wondered, should I keep going? Except for the single instance when the parachute was ripped off the payload box, I had never experienced a launch fall short of the prediction. Was the balloon still going up? Had it landed? Disappeared? I determined to head on toward Grinnell, close to the forecasted landing zone.

Ten miles past Marshalltown, near Toledo, my phone suddenly rang. The number on the screen was unfamiliar, with an area code I didn't recognize. "Oh boy," I thought. The voice of an older man came on, "We found your box!".

The Recovery

Affixed to the top of the payload box was a notice exclaiming in bold type "NOT DANGEROUS". Underneath was the image of an American flag, a description of the contents, phone numbers, and a reward offer. This was the first time it had actually proved useful.

The caller's name was Nick. He seemed excited and instructed me to head back to Marshalltown where we could meet at the junction of Highway 30 and 14 in a place called Cecil's Cafe. I made a u-turn and raced back west. On the outskirts of Marshalltown, I quickly found the diner and marched inside, half expecting somebody seated to jump up and wave me over right away. No one looked up. I asked a waitress if anybody was waiting to meet someone. "No," she said, curtly. I stepped outside and called Nick. He was on the way. I had beaten him there.

Minutes later a big white pickup pulled into the parking lot and out stepped three older men. Nick was the gentleman with the white beard and ball cap emblazoned with an eagle over an American flag. We all shook hands. Nick retrieved the payload box from the back seat. It looked intact, the parachute and radar reflector were still attached, but all remnants of the balloon were gone. Before having a chance at a closer look, Nick invited me in for a cup of coffee. I grabbed the iPad and followed.

Click to view largerBack inside Cecil's, the waitress poured us all steaming mugs of coffee. Sunday morning breakfast must have been a tradition. She knew Nick and his friends by name, but looked at me a little perplexed. I brought up the Spot GPS website on the iPad and zoomed in on the map pinpointing the last signal, ten miles west of Marshalltown in the middle of a field. I had assumed that on their way into town they noticed the payload box sitting there and had stopped. Once inside the truck, the Spot couldn't communicate, explaining the silence. I pointed at the map. "No", Nick said. "That's not right. Move over to the right." I flicked my finger across the screen until Marshalltown proper appeared. Nick had me shuffle over to the intersection of 16th and Summit Avenue, a residential area on the north-west side of town. "There," he said. "I found it in the middle of the street." My jaw dropped.

A chief priority with any launch is that it come down in a lightly populated area. Twice I had payloads land in a tree, once by the side of a rural road, and others in the wilderness. But on a street, in a town? That was a first. The same thing had recently happened in Norfolk, Virginia, except in that case locals called the bomb squad. Every day the National Weather Service releases a hundred and forty weather balloons equipped with radiosondes. It's not uncommon to find news reports when one of these unfamiliar objects is discovered by the public dangling from a parachute stuck on a power line or in a tree. In fact, about a quarter of them are actually found and returned.

Nick explained that when serving in the Navy out in the Bering Sea hunting submarines they often sent up meteorological balloons. To some, the payload lying in the street might have looked like some junk fallen off the back of a truck, but Nick said he had recognized it for what it was right away.

By the fourth cup of coffee, I had heard many of their life stories, that of their kids, grandchildren, and even a few nephews, not to mention intimate descriptions of various physical ailments. Nick and his buddies were retired. One had been a beef auction buyer for Tyson. Nick had worked at the local JBS pork packing plant. Since his brief stint in the Navy he hadn't traveled much outside Iowa.

When the check finally came I started to put some cash down, but Nick chimed in, "That's okay, you can mail me something." I got the hint and took his address. After all, I had offered a reward and he had earned it. This being the Midwest you didn't come right out with it. Undoubtedly happy to have a new story to share, Nick and his friends also seemed eager to get back to their routine. Like the balloon, I had unexpectedly dropped in on them. I took a few photos, we said our goodbyes, and I departed.

Click to view largerBack at the car I took a closer look at the payload box. Landing on hard pavement had done bad things. Inside was all a jumble. One of the still cameras had been destroyed, but the other was fine. The first video camera was still in place. I turned the box around. The other GoPro was missing. I dashed back into Cecil's. Nick came out and we searched the back of the truck. Nothing. He volunteered to guide me back to the landing spot.

Ten minutes later we arrived. The payload really had landed in the middle the street, just yards from an enormous tree. Across the road phone lines were strung up on poles. In the slush on the asphalt I saw a black shape. It was the camera. I jumped out of the car and plucked it from the snow. The lens was crushed in. It had been run over. But the memory card looked intact. Nick had felt bad that he hadn't spotted it lying there originally, but now he was ecstatic. I didn't have the heart to tell him the camera had been destroyed. A few blocks away, I dropped Nick off in front of his house. We bade farewell. Luck, and the kindness of strangers, I thought.


The Aftermath

Click to view largerIt was a five hour drive back to Milwaukee. Most important to the mission was getting usable video footage for Paul, but I had no way to check it out on the road. Having had little sleep it was a long trip home.

That evening, back in front of the computer, it was a great relief to see that the video of the logo had come out perfectly, exactly as envisioned. The balloon had risen over twenty miles to the edge of space, a thin blue line of atmosphere visible in the background, below a black sky. Incredibly, one of the GoPros had recorded over five hours of footage, including a view of Nick as he approached the payload box, loaded it into his truck, drove to a buddy's house, and talked to me on the phone. It even captured the moment he handed the box over to me and as I put it in my car. I fired off an e-mail to Paul, subject line: Awesome!!!

But why had it landed short? Inspecting the parachute I noticed the shroud lines were entangled with the rope that led from the top of the chute to the balloon. Normally that length of line ends up drooped across the top of the parachute with a portion hanging over the side as the payload descends. In this case a chunk of the balloon neck was still attached to the end and had become caught in the shroud lines. The parachute failed to open all the way, and what should have been a forty-five minute descent, taking the payload another twenty miles, ended after just thirteen minutes from the moment the balloon burst. Truly, there's no such thing as a routine near-space weather balloon mission.


► EQUIPMENT

2000 gram Hwoyee balloon, Chinese made

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.

Eagle Flight Computer from High Altitude Science

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

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: I used the extra "BacPac" battery pack for more recording time, as well as a 32gb SD memory card. The camera does come out of the box with a battery and memory card.

GoPro Hero 3+ Black camera

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: I used a SanDisk 64gb SD memory card as well as the additional BacPac battery.

2 x Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh External Battery Pack

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://www.ianker.com/support-c1-g95.html
  • Note: Both GoPros were plugged into one of these extra battery packs for more recording time. The Go Pro will not record while connected to a power source via USB unless you have the extra BacPac battery for the Go Pro itself and plug the USB cable into that.

Pentax K-01 w/28mm SMC manual focus lens, positioned down facing

  • Cost: already owned
  • Purchased off eBay

Pentax Q7, positioned for landscapes

  • Cost: $497

2 Adhesive backed HotHands Toasti Toes

  • Cost: $1.48

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: $1,102.48

Gas, hotel, and food count as extra!
Cost: $1,266.52


► MAPS & DATA

CUSF Trajectory Prediction:

Spot GPS Map:




Eagle Flight Computer 3D Map:



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


► LESSONS LEARNED

  1. In the past I've played it safe and included at least one big heat pack in the payload box in order to warm the air inside. However, the only camera that has ever suffered a problem with the cold has been the Pentax K-01, and I solved that issue in Launch 6. This time around I only used two small adhesive backed, air-activated toe warmers, affixed directly to the bottom and top of the K-01. It's likely, they had only a small effect on the ambient air temperature in the payload box. A GoPro camera will generate it's own heat and becomes very warm after running for a while. Likewise the Spot GPS device doesn't seem to be affected by cold either. And like all of the Canon PowerShot cameras I've tried, the Pentax Q7 didn't suffer for lack of heating either. So, in conclusion, I will probably never use big heat packs again. The adhesive backed toe warmers are incredible handy, and not only can you affix them to the sides of a camera, perhaps near or on the battery, but half affixed to the payload box they can help keep the cameras in place too.
  2. The payload box hit hard asphalt, and while it didn't explode into pieces or crush in drastically, the 1" thick box did suffer some big cracks, and the down-facing Pentax K-01 was destroyed. In the future, when using heavy or expensive down-facing cameras, I will place an inch thick cushions of soft foam between the camera and the wall of the box. And while I did have 3/4 inch thick pieces of cushioning foam affixed at each corner underneath the box, it wasn't nearly enough. Next time I might try 2" foam buffers -- particularly if using a down facing camera. In theory, they should absorb much of the impact from landing.
  3. The parachute shroud lines seem to have gotten entangled with the 8' line that led from the top of the parachute to the balloon neck. While luckily no balloon fragments clung to the top of this line after the balloon exploded, the nobby clump of balloon neck still left over did get wrapped up in the shroud lines. In the future, it might be make sense to use a parachute with fewer lines (like those from Rocketman) or make the line between the chute and the balloon much longer. Another alternative could be using a small hoop to hold the shroud lines apart, and a further option includes hanging the parachute from a long line hanging below the payload box, though the issue with that option is that on descent your payload box will be upside down and you would have to prepare it for that.
  4. Both GoPro cameras were wedged tightly into the side-wall of the payload box. A fringe of duct tape on the outside and some on the backside would normally have held them in place. But the impact was hard enough that one got knocked out, and was later destroyed after being run over by a car. Next time, I will, as I have in the past, either use more duct tap on the outside or use velcro straps to keep the cameras more firmly in place.
  5. Cloudy weather ended up wasting the opportunity I had to further experiment with the Pentax K-01, which was set up facing down. I didn't know it would be cloudy until right before launch and there wasn't enough time to cut a new hole in the side of payload box. In the future, it may be wise to have an alternative side-facing hole in the payload box that I can switch a down-facing camera to at the last minute.


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