This post is an actual account of a two-day adventure to track, locate, and recover K2CC’s space capsule from its first ever near-space weather balloon experiment. Day 1 (referred to as “yesterday”) is Thursday, May 5, 2011 and Day 2 (referred to as “today”) is Friday, May 6, 2011. The launch site was at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY USA.
As I wipe Southwest Chipotle Sauce from my hands and face, I notice the strange feeling of a full stomach that has not yet fully recovered from the mild airplane sickness from just an hour before. The search and rescue flight was long, fatiguing, and fruitless until just past the point of wanting to give up. The sound of the radio beacon was so faintly trying to get our attention at first that we almost missed it when our yawns out-cried its transmissions.
Day 2 Search Flight Path (OpenStreetMap Image)
Day 2 Balloon Spotted from Small Plane (White Shape)
To have been able to plan a search path to fly and even hear the radio beacon is quite incredible; however, to have made a visual confirmation of the space capsule’s landing place in the Adirondacks is next to impossible! Waypoint logged, here we are on our way to hopefully recover our aerial photography from our near-space weather balloon. Best yet, it’s late evening, leaving us with little remaining daylight, we have to hike through thick, swampy Boreal forest, and I’m covered with Southwest Chipotle Sauce. I hope there are no bears this far North that have ever vacationed in the Southwest to then say, “Is that Southwest Chipotle Sauce? My, I haven’t sunk my canines into a juicy Southwest Chipotle-style human since that rodeo years back!”
Day 1 Balloon Preparing For Liftoff (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
Day 1 Balloon Liftoff (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
Just yesterday, we launched the balloon and payload around 4pm with great success. At the last minute, I remembered that I happened to have an audible emergency siren in my vehicle, so I grabbed that, clipped it on the space capsule, and we enabled it upon launch. We released it from a lawn on campus and watched it ascend toward the clouds, and then hopped in our vehicles equipped with tracking and recovery gear. Our tracking and recovery gear consisted of VHF radios for receiving the position transmissions, computers and software for decoding the position data, specialized mapping software for comparing multiple waypoints, GPS receivers, UHF radios for mission voice communications, GSM and CDMA cellular telephones for receiving APRS network data from aprs.fi (in the very few spots that cellular coverage was possible), UHF radios for receiving the separate radio beacon transmissions, directional antennae for determining the relative bearing of the radio beacon, and standard hiking gear. While in our vehicles, we tracked a balloon flight path to the South, which then turned and completed a large circle.
Day 1 Balloon Flight Path According to APRS Telemetry (OpenStreetMap Image)
Day 1 Recovery Drive Over Two-by-four Bridge on Logging Roads (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
Due to GPS location transmissions being interrupted prematurely, we were unable to determine the landing site, which necessitated the use of balloon trajectory prediction software. We drove on some very rough, and scary, logging roads near the predicted possible landing area. We even had to cross some interesting wooden bridges! Unfortunately, we were unable to receive either GPS location transmissions or the separate beacon’s transmissions, which led to our eventual small plane flight today.
Day 2 Recovery Hike Tracking Radio Beacon with Directional Antenna (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
In this second evening attempt, we arrive 0.7 miles from the spotted landing site on a major State highway at 8pm. Three of us begin our hike with hiking gear, a UHF radio, and a directional antenna. We hike through thick forest with an unusual, swampy, moss-covered floor. After a while of pushing our way through the forest, we come to a stream.
While in the air, we noticed this stream that would be in our way, as well as a beaver dam stretched across it. After locating it, we then cross the stream by walking 100 feet along the top of the beaver dam until safely on the other side, which also necessitated throwing down logs from the dam to repair a 10-foot gap in the center of the dam. We then continue pushing our way through the forest toward the source of the UHF beacon transmissions, and inquire about a strange-sounding bird we occasionally hear chirp.
Day 2 Recovery Hike Crossing Beaver Dam Repaired By Us (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
Day 2 Recovery Hike with Space Capsule Hanging Just Overhead (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
Eventually, we arrive at the general vicinity of the landing site, but are so close to the source of the radio beacon transmissions that we no longer can determine a direction. At this point, we are searching every tree for a shiny, metallic space capsule dangling by a string. Just then, we hear that same unusual chirp, and realize it is too acrylic-sounding to belong in the forest. The occasional chirp is not from a bird, but from the battery-exhausted audible beacon we had clipped on the space capsule as an afterthought! We turn and look with our flashlights to see our space capsule dangling from an evergreen tree. I suggest we fell the tree, but the capsule is only about 8 feet off the ground, so we decide to simply pull it down instead.
Day 2 Recovery Hike with Capsule, Parachute, and Balloon Remnants Successfully Recovered (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
Day 2 Recovery Hike Successful (Photo by Tyler Conlon)
With coyotes packing up behind us, we trek back to the beaver dam, cross the pond using the dam again, and press through the pitch-black forest back to the vehicle. After an intense hike through the dark, we arrive back at the road where the vehicle is parked. We arrive in Potsdam at 10:15pm with space capsule, parachute, and balloon remnants in hand, and recover the memory cards from the horizontal and vertical digital cameras with incredible timelapse photography on board!
Aerial Photo of Potsdam, NY Taken by Balloon (Photo by K2CC's Weather Balloon)
Aerial Photo of Space Taken by Balloon (Photo by K2CC's Weather Balloon)
Other notable photos from K2CC’s weather balloon and space capsule, as well as from the recovery missions: https://picasaweb.google.com/tycon1337/TheGreatGigInTheSky
APRS Position Telemetry Messages: balloon_aprs_dot_fi_messages
Tyler Conlon’s website: http://tylerconlon.com
K2CC’s website: http://k2cc.clarkson.edu