HAB_2 Detailed Report

Science and engineering proved to be hard: On Oct 24 2015, the Kirksville, MO (USA) High School Maker Club and HAB.education launched a weather balloon from Kirksville High School. In addition to the HAB.education crew (Dustin Mayfield-Jones, Huan Truong, Dr. Don Bindner, and Derek Sigler), local ham radio enthusiasts helped out with the event. Students got to learn about the components and steps involved in engineering high-altitude balloons. The launch was a fun event for everyone involved. The group learned a whole lot about scripting flights for potentially improving student learning. They also got a chance to solve new radio communication and search coordination problems, although unfortunately, the payload was not recovered.

Here we share the summary of Dr. Bindner for the post-launch search.

It seems that our balloon payload is lost. It was kind of a weird launch day. Ten minutes before the launch, we discovered that one of our GPS units would not get a position lock. We waited for several minutes, and it refused to lock on, so we removed it from the flight. (There’s no point in sending up a piece of hardware that isn’t working; it adds weight to flight and it can be lost.)

We had two other GPS units in the payload, so removing the third one was not a significant loss. While we were taking pictures moments before the launch, a second GPS unit quit working. It was one we had used for several flights successfully, and we didn’t notice when it quit.

Our third GPS device gave us a single packet at about 4000 feet above the ground, just minutes into the flight. After that we didn’t hear any more position reports.

This was unlike previous flights. Generally once a balloon is in the air, two things happen. First, GPS locks become very reliable, since they have an unimpeded view of the sky (and all of the GPS satellite network). And second, the radio transmitters become very easy to hear. Transmissions are “line of sight” and transmitters in the sky can be “seen” by everyone. Normally position reports start coming in from all over, even states away.

Even though it’s pretty redundant, we also included two “beacon radios” that transmit a simple morse code message every 5 minutes. They can run for a week or two on a set of batteries. They’re sort of the last resort for finding a lost balloon, but it is possible to triangulate a position and find your payload. We switched over to the transmitter frequency, and we couldn’t hear them either.

Every tracking device was independent, with its own antenna and batteries. A multiple failure (ultimately 4-fold failure, since we removed one of the radios before launch) almost certainly means that our payload crashed early, nearly right away after the launch.

Our best guess is that our payload is within 15 miles of Kirksville. It’s very windy today, and we suspect that a strong pocket of turbulence ripped the balloon from the payload. Once the payload fell to the ground, behind a hill or in a low area, the radio signals became blocked.

We came back to my home station, and could just make out the direction finding beacon over the background static. We also had a single position report that was potentially buggy, but appeared to be correct (it was in the direction we’d seen the balloon go, and along the predicted path).

So we drove to that area to listen for signals from our balloon. But we didn’t have luck with that. By the time we retreated home, we could no longer hear our balloon payload. Conditions seem to have changed, perhaps because of the coronal mass ejection hitting the earth today (that may have been the cause of our GPS woes as well).

We still may hear position reports as the sun goes down and conditions change, so we haven’t quite given up hope. Those reports will continue for some time still. And the morse code beacon may run for a couple of weeks, so there will be chances to hear it when conditions improve.

And someone may find our payload and call us.

Update November 6th, 2015

Our payload has been finally recovered in Avon, IL! We will post data for the flight shortly!