A few months ago, khaaan suggested that we launch a weather balloon as a way to garner some attention for the site. I had never launched a weather balloon, and as I thought it might be fun, I approached b_b and thenewgreen with the idea. They were immediately interested too.
For a few weeks the three of us we talked about what we might do to make it interesting. Eventually we settled on the idea that we would launch a goldfish into the stratosphere, and return it safely, recording the trip from multiple vantages.
As khaaan originally suggested the idea, the golfish would be named ‘Major Khaaan’.
I had previously built an underwater camera using a chamber of PVC and some tempered glass, and we decided to use a similar setup for the capsule.
And here is the capsule in near-completed form:
Pre-launch video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybxFV4qPUbI
Once we started building, steve and ecib joined in. steve’s job was the video production. He and his friend Dave generously donated a Swaan camera and a Kodak camera, as well as an external USB battery source. ecib donated his old Blackberry Storm as a camera. I donated my old iPhone 3GS as a camera, and b_b and thenewgreen procured the parachute and the weather balloon. I also got a Tagg PetTracker GPS locator.
The payload consisted of: A PVC capsule, a USB external power source, and iPhone external battery, a Swaan camera (facing down), an iPhone camera (facing down and recording the capsule and the ground below), a BlackBerry Storm (facing up), and a Kodak camera (facing the horizon), and the GPS locator.
Although we wanted very good footage, our primary goal was to bring back the goldfish alive. We did not want to kill a fish. We initially chose a goldfish primarily because water has a high specific heat, and therefore does not cool as quickly as air, and because goldfish are relatively tolerant of lower temperatures. However, to ensure that the water didn’t freeze in the -50C temperatures, the capsule was wrapped in handwarmers and foam. b_b and I have access to a -80C freezer, and we also performed some tests to make sure that the water would remain warm enough throughout the flight.
Two days before the launch, I purchased a goldfish and put it in a running aquarium that I have. The next morning he was dead. There was another fish that lives happily in that aquarium, so I’m not quite sure what did him in. I have had fish as pets for quite a while, and I let his water adjust to the tank temperature before adding him. Sometimes new fish just don’t do well. At any rate, at that point we concluded that a goldfish might not be up for the mission. We then decided that Major Khaaan would be a simple freshwater snail, and he was.
I should mention that helium is not very easy to come by due to an ongoing shortage, and we got lucky as thenewgreen’s family has a machine shop, and we could order a tank through them. A few days before the launch, b_b and I were told by a party supply owner that a tank would be $250 if it were even available for us to purchase. Thanks to thenewgreen we got it for significantly less.
Although the Tagg GPS locator worked really well (we tested it several times), we knew that while the balloon was in flight, we wouldn’t have contact with Major Khaaan. Also, as we needed to have a general idea of where the balloon would pop, and where Major Khaaan would land, we used these two weather balloon flight predictors:
shoe77 joined us that morning to shoot video of the launch. We drove to Grand Mere State Park. Major Khaaan launched at about 10:15AM. shoe77 had to get back to school, and b_b took him back while thenewgreen and I began to drive to the predicted landing site. Our predicted flight time was 2 hours and 30 minutes.
At just about that time, we arrived in the landing area and began checking the Tagg. No signal. 10 minutes later, no signal. 30 minutes after that, no signal. 7 days later, no signal.
Ground control to Major Khaaan…
Our best guess is that the flight of Major Khaaan was significantly longer than the software predicted. Based on the wind patterns of 12-19-12, if the flight was more than 3.5 hours, we think that he could have landed in Lake St. Clair, or perhaps in Canada. Lake Erie is a possibility, however, the wind turned northward as the day progressed. Although the capsule was buoyant, we did not test if the GPS locator would be above the water in the event of a water landing. That was a mistake. Also, we called Tagg, and learned that their service does not provide coverage for Canada, this was another mistake.
My contact information is on the capsule, so we still have hope that we might recover it. However, our hopes for Major Khaaan faded quickly.
We have learned a lot of hard lessons with this launch. I would have much rather shared our success; however we thought it important to share our failure. I’d be happy to explain any details I might have missed, or to answer any questions you might have. I’m sure that the other guys would be willing to jump in as well.
I do have to say that none of us are ok with this being our last weather balloon. We have experience that we want to apply, and we will be planning a future project.