Declaring a week’s advance notice of a balloon launch to the edge of space when we hadn’t even bought most of the equipment, let alone built it, was probably an act of pique, if not madness. Remarkable how well it worked out, though – just look at the pictures!
We were buoyed by the unexpected help from all three members of another Space Balloon Project, one of whom Christie had met in line for the checkout at a Ham Radio Outlet, who then showed up at the fateful meeting when the timeline was decided. They’d done it before in style, and even – very bravely! – volunteered their camera and parachute (a donation from rocketchutes.com) for the experiment.
The gas station was well equipped with many things that we’d forgotten to bring, including miniature weather balloons for testing before the real launch (available in packs of 3, with optional lubrication). The staff were also related to the people who owned the adjacent field, and told us that although they weren’t giving us permission to enter, they also weren’t going to call the police immediately. We were committed.
More problems soon showed up – the radios hadn’t taken a charge overnight, and were dangerously low on battery. The ground station battery failed altogether after receiving a single APRS packet. Our attempt to use expandable foam to hold the components in place in the cooler also failed, leaving us with a soggy mass in a plastic bag with no rigidity. We broke the attachment points on the cooler.
Nonetheless, after jury-rigging a gas regulator out of high-school chemistry supplies (inexplicably present in Christie’s van), we started to fill the balloon. We turned on all the electronics, confirmed that we were receiving both SMS position updates every minute from Icarus and APRS position updates (via Brian’s APRS-capable radio) every 30 seconds, and then, with the balloon almost completely filled and yearning to fly, we proceeded to debate the best way to attach the payload, parachute and balloon together. After filling our quota of rope burns, we were ready to fly – and launch we did, complete with countdown!
Partying ensued, while we watched the balloon soar skywards at a furious pace, and was soon lost in the clouds. The ebullience muted a little when we discovered that the APRS data wasn’t being seen by any of the area digipeaters, although Brian’s radio was still receiving updates. Only one further position SMS was received after the balloon was released, and then Icarus fell silent. After a few minutes, the APRS beacon failed as well. The balloon was lost.
We cleaned up the site in a more somber mood, with the burners automatically falling into a line to scour for discarded trash, and decided to drive down to Los Banos, about 50 miles south, in the hope of being closer to the vicinity of any eventual landing. Almost an hour after launch, when halfway to our destination a single APRS packet appeared on the digipeaters, which told us we’d achieved our mission by ascending to 60,901 feet, but also spelled out the doom to which we’d sent our faithful electronic payload.
Half an hour later, in pitch darkness, we were deep inside a goose farm, most of the team standing watch for farmers with shotguns while the intrepid few bravely ventured forth through fertile fields, ankle-deep mud, and throngs of potentially man-eating fowl to successfully retrieve the payload – in pristine condition.
So many things went wrong – the effort that we put into the APRS side vastly outweighed the results. The camera failed partway down due to ice melting inside the electronics. Nothing inside the cooler was secured, and only luck kept us out of turbulence sufficient to have components damage one another. But Icarus was a blinding success, and the sensor data, photographs and video that we captured are just amazing. Accelerometer readings indicate a peak altitude somewhere between 67,000 and 70,000 feet.
But right now we have another full tank of helium.
Next launch is mid-March.
Photos from Andrew, Christie, and Mikolaj; join the spacebridge mailing list to help out with future adventures. Also available is raw sensor data from the GPS, accelerometer and magnetometer on the G1, 180MB of photos taken by the camera (including the image above), and the KML track for use in Google Earth. The complete video taken by the downwards facing camera is also available.