Launch Recap and Thoughts

Wow, Sunday was an eventful and satisfying day. For the most part, every aspect of the launch could not have been more perfect. While it is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to take a minute and recap in fuller detail the timeline of our day. If you have any questions regarding specifics of the flight or our project, leave them in the comments and one of my students or I will try to answer it for you.

10:20am – I arrived at campus (our launch site) to begin setting up. WLTX news was already there! One of my students was already there and he helped me bring all the equipment to the launch site.

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11:15am – All equipment and materials are laid out and we begin filling the balloon. Other students simultaneously are working on getting GPS gyro-bowl installed in payload and initializing GoPro camera. We were extremely fortunate our 125 cu ft helium tank ran out of helium exactly when we hit our required lifting force of 7.5 lbs.

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11:39am – Liftoff. Everything went perfectly without a hitch.

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11:50am – We pack up launch site and head towards predicted landing site outside of Sumter, SC. The balloon tracks very well, and heads north for a bit before turning sharply east.

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12:19pm – We lose contact (as expected) with the payload as the balloon surpasses 20,000 feet (max operating altitude for SPOT GPS).

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1:42pm – We get our first GPS hit from Sumter a few miles away. We get three in succession right around each other as the balloon descends.

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1:54pm – Touchdown. The payload comes to rest in a storage facility. Fortunately, the gates were open for customers and we were able to drive in and retrieve our payload.

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We immediately get the footage out and view it on our laptop. Success!!

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Later that evening, two different news agencies ran a clip about our project.

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS:

I’d say 95% of the project could not have gone more perfect. We had lots of good publicity after the launch, and I’ve had many students contact me from other classes asking to participate if we did another launch. Future launches will be relatively inexpensive since the costly equipment has already been purchased and is reusable.

The one rather big disappointment of our launch was the Arduino microprocessor we spent many hours perfecting for some reason did not record any data.  I suspect it was not an issue with cold temps, as the card was readable post-recovery and it still had data on it from previous testing. My best guess is that while loading the payload with the GoPro, GPS, etc. we may have bumped the device and unplugged or loosened a wire, causing the Arduino to not record properly. Lesson learned — next time we will test the Arduino immediately before launch, and put it in a protective case. I think a pencil case would work well. The impact of this failure means we do not have precise temperature, pressure, or altitude readings for our launch. However, we do have lat/long recordings of our payload which closely followed the predicted path. Also, based off of time calculations our project was extremely consistent with dozens of other HAB launches which all reached 100,000+ feet altitude.

I hope to do this process again soon, where we can hopefully now think more about the sensors and data retrieval instead of the “wow factor” of the HD video and do some good math modeling with our results. Some other sensors we may consider next time include GPS tracker (ours worked great, but hey – why not have a backup system), accelerometer, magneto (measures Earth’s magnetic forces — helps determine which way you’re facing NSEW), temperature (inside and outside the box), pressure, altitude, and humidity. An ambitious project that is currently above my level of expertise that I think would also be fun is to make a HAM radio repeater where you can use the balloon’s high altitude to send radio signals for many many miles.

One other small hiccup which obviously did not affect us too bad was that I think our GoPro Backpac was faulty. We charged it for many hours before launch but it did not read that it was taking a charge. We’ll send it back to GoPro for an exchange. Even so, we were easily able to record through the balloon burst. We were simply not able to record all the way back to earth but that was no big deal.

To close out this project I am currently working on taking our latitude/longitude data from the GPS, matching it with the predicted altitudes from our software projections to build a somewhat accurate .kml file that can be viewed on Google Earth.

Thanks everyone for their support during this project, and again — one more thanks to the Midlands Technical College Foundation for generously supporting our entire mission. Without them we would have been sending up a polaroid camera in a grocery bag, attached to a party balloon instead of the high quality equipment we were able to use!

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