By Bill Church
Profile HAB Blog Post #3
At approximately 10:12 am on Friday, November 18th, 2016, a weather balloon carrying Profile High School's student designed payload box sailed upward to its maximum altitude of 29988 meters (98,361 feet) and then burst. At that moment, the payload box, containing flight cameras and radio/GPS tracking systems, started its descent back to earth. We knew this because we were receiving GPS updates on its location every three seconds.
Then, thirty five seconds into the payload box's descent, the GPS system went flat. The balloon's payload computer was still on and broadcasting its radio signal to us on the ground, but the location data was no longer being updated. All we saw was the same latitude, longitude, and altitude over and over and over.
This was going to make finding our system much more difficult.
Fortunately, we had options as long as the radio continued to broadcast. First, we used habhub.org's prediction tool to update our flight trajectory. Based on the new flight prediction, we adjusted our tracking team's rendezvous site from Lancaster to Whitefield.
During the forty five minute descent, while the payload box fell beneath a black and white homemade parachute (in a previous life, it had been an umbrella), our WMSI team drove to Whitefield to meet with the recovery teams of Profile students, Profile teachers, and other community volunteers.
Eric Lougee (KB1OKX) made it to Whitefield first. During 2015 and 2016, Eric and Bob Harris (K9UDX) have been very generous with their time, helping our WMSI/Profile team set up our radio tracking systems. They are both members of active amateur radio communities in Vermont and New Hampshire and their skills have been essential in many of the technical aspects of our radio tracking and recovery endeavors.
Eric was parked at the intersection of Rt. 116 and Rt. 3, listening to the payload box's radio signal. Then, at approximately 11am, the signal went completely silent. I was driving toward Whitefield and noted a similar loss of signal. Was the radio system in the payload box dead? Or had the box just landed? Either scenario explained the sudden loss of signal. We hoped for the latter. The rolling hills around the predicted landing site would block us from receiving the signal directly. Assuming the box was still alive and transmitting its radio signal, we moved on to the next part of our recovery plan.
Multiple parties met in Whitefield. Jeremy and I arrived from the WMSI team. Eric and Ron Taksar (AB1NN) were present. Profile teacher's Kevin Briere and Dan Crosby joined with the Profile School students. Parent volunteer, Ben Merrill, also arrived. Bob Harris and fellow amateur radio volunteer, Chuck Carroll, were monitoring from Lancaster. We outlined a plan wherein some vehicles would drive north to Lancaster on Route 3 and then back to Whitefield via Route 2. Other cars would drive 116 out to Route 2 and then back to Whitefield via Route 115. Finally, some of us would go to a high point near the Mountain View Grand Hotel. We all had radio equipment tuned to the payload signal. Our main goal was to determine if that signal was still there or not. If it was, we still had a chance of finding the payload box.
We all parted, keeping in contact via cell phones and handheld ham radios. After about 30 minutes of searching, we compared notes. The signal was found! It could be heard from the hilltop location of the Mountain View Grand as well as from certain locations off Rt. 116 between the Grand and Rt. 2.
With the signal back, we used radio direction finding (RDF) techniques to define a search area. Using a Yagi antenna , we listened for the strongest signal from several different locations between the Mountain View Road and the East Whitefield Road. We took compass bearings in the direction of the strongest signal. We were definitely close to the payload box. It was on the ground and calling out to us loudly; however, even in a search area less than a square mile, finding it would prove to be tricky. Based on two hopeful bearings from strong signal measurements, we conducted a foot search. As we walked the woods, the volume of our signal climbed and fell depending on what direction we pointed and where we walked. the payload was near but after about an hour we had to call off the foot search just before dark. We needed to save time to measure more radio bearings from the road.
By about 6:30pm, we completed our measurements. With Eric's help, we obtained 15 different bearings. The good news is that they all pointed "inward" toward our first guess. We drove home knowing that we still had hope but recognized that the probability of success was draining. The batteries for the payload box's radio system were likely to be dead within a few hours. When we next searched for our box, it would no longer be calling out to us. We would have to march along in radio silence looking for a black and white umbrella turned parachute and a shoebox sized, tin foil covered, foam box. Not quite a needle but certainly still a large haystack.
On Saturday, November 20th, Eric and I met to make a plan. Since we last spoke on Friday, Eric had carefully drawn all of the bearing lines on Google Earth and circled the area where our box most likely landed. The search area was down to a region much smaller than a square mile but still much bigger than several football fields. It was wooded and wet. We did not know how easy it would be to navigate. But, the weather cooperated. It was one of the last warm and clear days of the fall. We decided to walk the area using an ATV trail for initial access from the road. Reconnaissance was our goal. By the end of the day, we would create a search plan for a future outing involving our students and other volunteers.
When we arrived at the ATV trail near the search area, we turned on our radios to see if the payload box was still broadcasting. Based on our previous battery life tests, we predicted that there would be radio silence. There was. Nothing but static. Our search for the payload box would not benefit from any more radio clues. What we knew at this point was all the information we would have. Our priority remained to learn more about the area for future search efforts.
For more than three hours, we walked the area. It was a mix of wet areas, extremely dense stands of second growth forest, and some more open stands of birch-fir forest. At the time, I thought that this was a challenging but definitely not impossible location for a larger search effort. That made me hopeful for our chances of finding the box.
Hopeful as I was for finding the box in a future search, I still kept my eyes open wide for our black and white parachute.
Then, at about 3pm, we decided to head back toward the road and our car. The short November days in northern New Hampshire were a disadvantage for a long search effort; however, our main goal was achieved. We defined our search area. We had a safe and relatively dry access point via a local ATV trail. If the weather cooperated in the coming weeks, we would be able to mount a larger search effort and increase our recovery chances. It was a great day with moderate temperatures and clear skies.
And it was not over yet.
As we walked out, we kept reminding ourselves to keep looking. We were exiting the search area but we still might catch a glimpse of something in the trees. Onward we walked past a series of beaver lodges and dams. Then across a relatively open area.
Crossing that open area, Eric and I saw something down on the ground. A plastic garbage bag? We had been fooled on a previous balloon searching effort while helping a fellow HAB enthusiast. We saw what looked liked the downed balloon but it was only a couple of happy birthday balloons. This time we were cautiously optimistic. As we walked closer, we saw more. We saw the fabric of a black and white umbrella. We saw a shoe box-sized foam container. We saw the Profile School's payload box! Hard work and much good fortune! We found it!
The box that braved near space was back on earth. Now to find out if the cameras worked. Our space tourist was back and we wanted to see the photos!
What is next? We are actively working on improving our launch and recovery systems to ensure more successful trips to the edge of space. This will enable us to offer local schools opportunities to send science experiments to this remote and extreme environment. How cold is it? How much extra cosmic radiation is there? What about Ultraviolet light exposure? What would a marshmallow do in the extremely low pressure of near space? Would water boil before it froze? We aim to give students the opportunity to become space scientists, letting their curiosity reach new heights!