Hartley Brody

Finding the Weather Balloon That Went to Space

In my last article, I talked about how I sent a weather balloon and video camera into space, but needed help finding the footage. I posted the article to Hacker News and promptly fell asleep, exhausted after a long day of adventure.

When I woke up, my inbox was full of comments from people all over the world showing support and offering to help. Apparently, the post made it to the #3 spot on the front page and drew almost 10,000 views to the article.

One email was from a HN’er who goes by wavewash, or Mo in real life. He told me his company was offering to sponsor the search for the missing footage, using a remote control airplane with a camera to fly over the forested area and conduct an aerial search.

He and I went back and forth and, two weeks later (waiting out hurricane Sandy) we were on the road together with his girlfriend, driving up to Maine to continue the search.

The Search, Take 2

I brought along my trusty Garmin 60CSx as well as the new SPOT Personal Tracker I had just purchased, in preparation for a second balloon launch. :)

We used the second map I had made as our reference area. The map combined four different checkin points from the tracking device in the balloon’s capsule, as well as my own guesstimates of where it might have drifted due to the wind.

Crash site map #2

Unfortunately, the remote control airplane wasn’t quite ready for the trip, but we set out into the woods again, hoping that the lack of foliage would make it easier to search the tree canopies.

It took us about 5 minutes to get to the location on my map, and then we started to spread out.

Within about 90 seconds, I spotted a giant white flap of latex blowing in the wind, about 2/3rds of the way up a tall pine tree. I actually wasn’t sure if it was the balloon at first, or whether it was some sort of giant gross mushroom thing, but then I spotted the capsule and the lens of the camera dangling below.

I couldn’t believe it – I had finally found it!

Before I could even start planning how we’d get it down – it was about 40ft off the ground – Mo came crashing through the forest and started scampering up the tree to retrieve the capsule.

It took a minute or two for him to dislodge the parachute and what remained of the weather balloon and then drop it back to us on the ground.

Thanks to the Community

As we were walking back to the car, a homeowner came out to his porch and asked if that was the balloon he had kept hearing about. He said several groups had come by asking if he’d seen anything, and he was really excited that we recovered it.

It was awesome to know that the community had gotten so involved.

Huge shout out to Mo and his girlfriend for making the three hour trek up to Maine and back, and thanks to everyone in the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities that organized search parties or told their friends, and everyone on the internet who offered to help in some way. You all kept me dedicated to keep searching.

The Footage

The GoPro was actually pretty tricky to pry open. I’m guessing the waterproof seal tightened in the vacuum of the upper atmosphere. Eventually we got the SD card out and found a suitable laptop to play the video on (thanks Toph!)

While the balloon was in the air for over 4 hours from take off till landing, the camera was only able to recorded about 2 and a half hours before the battery died.

Unfortunately, this meant that it didn’t capture its highest moments in space or its crash landing into Brunswick.

But there’s still some magnificent footage:

It was a beautifully clear day so there were no clouds to shroud the view from the camera’s soaring heights.

The camera was pointed down at an angle in order to capture both the edge of space, as well as the view of the earth below.

I’m not entirely sure how high the camera was in its final moments, but I’m sure it could be calculated based on the distance between landmarks in the video. Let me know if you want to lend a hand with those calculations!

Do’s and Don’ts

I was inspired by Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking jump from the edge of space to finally follow my dream and try to reach space myself. Out of excitement, I rushed to put the launch together in a single week. Here’s what I learned:

You need redundant systems.
Tracking and video recording are the two crucially important systems on your capsule. If either one of them fails, you might not get full video, and you might even lose all your equipment.

I was lucky that my GPS receiver thawed out enough to check in a few times before the battery died. And because of the battery issues with the GoPro, I wasn’t able to record the entire trip… :(

It’s worth putting in a few extra pounds to ensure you can find your capsule and that it’s able to record footage the entire time. I’ll definitely be doing this for the next launch.

The upper atmosphere can be a pretty harsh environment for electronics.
It’s not as easy as you might think to track an object that’s tens of thousands of feet off the ground in temperatures well below freezing. The Garmin device I tucked into the capsule was pretty much useless – it only checked in 5 times during the entire 200mi trip.

For people that want to build their own hardware, there’s lots of information for hobbyists available. Check out the UK High Altitude Society for more.

To keep things warm, I wrapped the inside of the capsule with thick air conditioner insulation, and tucked in several hand warmers to keep the batteries from freezing. I should have included a lid on the capsule to keep more heat locked in.

You have to think about the safety of others.
I had several people point out that I made no mention of FAA or FCC regulations regarding this sort of activity in the last article. I didn’t include them cause I thought they’d be boring, but they’re extremely important to be aware of.

IANAL, but according to my reading of the rules, if the capsule is under four pounds and doesn’t use a cell phone for tracking, you should be in the clear legally.

That said, I also took care to avoid airports and other airspace that might cause issues as the balloon was being launched. One of my coworkers is an amateur pilot and he showed me http://skyvector.com/ which shows airports as well as other restricted airspace warnings. I didn’t want my balloon getting tangled with an airplane or causing any other issues.

While the sky might appear to be wide and vast, there are thousands of people flying over our heads every day, and it’s important to keep their safety in mind.

Be prepared for a long chase.
In all of my excitement and anticipation, I didn’t really know what was going to happen once we actually launched the thing. There were a few hours of radio silence that would’ve driven me crazy if my girlfriend hadn’t suggested we go for a hike and enjoy the foliage – leaving the tracking device in the car.

We ended up driving almost 400 miles that day from the launch site to crash site and back home. Prepare yourself for this mentally.

As always, reach out to me on twitter and I’d be happy to answer any more specific questions. Thanks for all the support!