It came from YouTube, really. Our news director, Corrie Harding, saw a promotional video where two guys launched a can of Natural Light beer into near-space. They did it by attaching a payload to a weather balloon. He wanted to know if we could do the same thing.
We, obviously, do not have the technical expertise to do this, so we turned to Hackerspace Charlotte. Put simply, Hackerspaces are places where people can gather to tinker with technology. The one in Charlotte has created the world’s largest permanent QR code on a rooftop in NoDa. Why? Because they could. Charlotte Space Exploration, a local non-profit, helped with the research.
August Flassig, who headed up the effort for Hackerspace Charlotte, had another reason to launch.
“I want some pictures where I can see the earth curve, and see the black of space above a blue planet,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s goes back to my first picture of the moon in a telescope.”
NBC Charlotte bought the balloon and the helium, and provided two GoPro cameras and Larry Sprinkle’s face. Hackerspace used a 3D printer to create a tiny plastic astronaut which ended up becoming Larry’s body. They also figured out how to track the balloon in the air. And we were assured that once we would recovered the balloon, it would stink. Space stinks, apparently.
We used a latex weather balloon and filled it with helium until it expanded to six feet in diameter. The balloon can stretch to an incredible size before breaking. We estimated that it would be 30 feet across if it got up to an altitude of 100,000 feet, which it did. The low pressure at that height causes the balloon to expand and, eventually, pop. Everybody who handled the balloon had to wear gloves, since oils from our hands could weaken the latex and make it pop early. The helium was fairly pricey. There’s a shortage, which is driving up the price.
We used a blue thermal lunchbox from REI, and cut holes in the side and bottom for the cameras which, we admit, were not close enough to the actual cameras. Because GoPro cameras use such wide angle lenses, we got a lot of the lunchbox in the shot, so the video you see in the story has been cropped.
To keep everything from getting jumbled around, Hackerspace built a lightweight frame to mount the cameras. We put a handwarmer in the center-- the same kind you’d put in your ski boots to keep your toes warm on the slopes. We estimated the temperature at 100,000 feet to be about -60 degrees Fahrenheit, and cold temperatures can kill battery life. To keep the cameras rolling as long as possible, we needed to keep them warm. Another potential problem: lack of oxygen. Hand warmers need it to create the chemical reaction that creates heat. But at 60,000 feet, the amount of oxygen is so low, the reaction basically stops. We hoped that the residual heat that built up inside the lunchbox would be enough to keep the battery life as long as possible.
Hackerspace Charlotte created a radio that would transmit packets of data containing three important things: location, altitude and speed. Once the balloon got above a few thousand feet, it’s strikingly hard to see. The on-board GPS helped solve the problem. Hackerspace’s August Flassig assigned his HAM radio call sign to the balloon, then used other HAM radio receiving stations across North Carolina to pull in the signal from the balloon. During the three hour flight, we didn’t lose contact with the balloon until the very end, when it dipped below 2,800 feet and was too low to be tracked by faraway stations. That presented a major problem, which we’ll get into later.
We bought a four-foot bright yellow parachute to attach to the line. We also attached a wooden hoop to the parachute lines to keep it from getting tangled up, which would prevent it from opening. At 100,000 feet, there isn’t much air, hence, the parachute has to fall into denser air before there’s enough of it to open. The color would also help us find it once it hit the ground.
We used a long nylon rope to keep the lunchbox as far away from the balloon as possible. When weather balloons pop at high altitude, the explosion is rather violent, and keeping sensitive equipment far away is a must. In all, it was 30 feet from the top of the balloon to the bottom of the lunchbox.
Hackerspace’s Hardik Patel whipped up a lightweight plastic astronaut using a 3D printer, which uses a tiny heated stream of plastic that hardens up into specific shapes. The head was printed separately from the body, and the two were joined together using small spring.
The entire payload—the balloon, lunchbox, cameras, rope, bobblehead, everything—had to weigh less than four pounds. Anything that weighs more is considered a hazard to airplanes and would have required us to file a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration. As a courtesy, we wrapped some pieces of poster board in foil, which would reflect radar beams and let planes and anyone else know it was there.
The most important thing is remembering to turn everything on before the launch. “The worst part of it is, there’s no going back and saying ‘I forgot to turn on that switch,’” said Flassig. “Did you turn on your radio? Is everything ready to go? Are your cameras rolling? Once it leaves your hands, you don’t have another choice.”
We originally planned to launch the balloon in Marshville, North Carolina, but stronger winds forced us to find a launch site further west. We chose York Middle School in York, South Carolina. Our launch time was 9:40 a.m. on Sunday, November 4, 2012. We estimated a two-and-a-half hour flight time, and a travel distance of about 60 miles.
The balloon went much, much further.
We used a website in Finland, aprs.fi, to take the decoded signals from the balloon and plot them live on a map. We waited about 20 minutes after the launch before getting in the car and starting the chase. Full disclosure, somebody brought cookies, and we couldn’t let them go to waste.
We had some of our First Warn Storm Spotters staged in the Rockingham area, ahead of the balloon. The NBC Charlotte chase car immediately fell behind, since we had to drive back to Interstate 77 from York Middle School, then up to I-485, and over to U.S. 74. The balloon, as you can see from the map, took a shortcut.
The Jet Stream
We knew there would be some strong winds between 25,000 and 35,000 feet. But those strong winds kept blowing the balloon east all the way up to 40,000 feet. At one point, the balloon hit a speed of 80 miles per hour. Besides making it hard to catch up the balloon, the jet stream also kept the balloon from rising quickly. We overshot our landing zone and the balloon stayed up nearly an hour longer than we thought as a result. Above 40,000 feet, the balloon slowed way down and started to rise more quickly.
The highest recorded altitude from the balloon was 102,457 feet, which we hit at 1:16 p.m. About 10 miles north of Fayetteville, at more than 19 miles above the surface of the earth, the balloon popped. We lost contact with it for four minutes, during which time it fell nearly 17,000 feet.
It took 3 ½ hours for the balloon to hit its peak altitude. It took about 45 minutes for it to return to earth.
We lost contact with the balloon at 1:59 p.m., and the last signal it gave off was our last clue as to where it went. The balloon was 2,857 feet above a hunting preserve 10 miles west of Goldsboro, moving east southeast at 14 MPH.
Here's an interactive map showing the track of the balloon, and below, a 3D view:
The guys from Hackerspace Charlotte arrived first, and were about two miles away from the balloon when it landed. We found the exact spot where the balloon gave off its last readable signal, and started to look. In trees. In the woods. In open fields. We saw nothing. We thought we may be able to find the signal once we got closer on the ground, but we didn’t have the equipment to decode it. The signal that we thought was coming from the balloon was actually coming from an area near Raleigh. After a few hours of searching, we started to lose light and headed back to Charlotte.
Here's the area where we had been searching:
Hackerspace Charlotte, NBC Charlotte and the First Warn Storm Spotters made six trips out to the hunting preserve to go look for the balloon. The property’s owner also had hunters look out for it. We even rented a plane to fly over the area to see if we could see it from above. Each time, we saw nothing.
We called in the big guns.
On Thursday, November 29, 25 days after we released the balloon, we flew our news helicopter, AirStar, out to the site. Brent Gourley, the pilot, assured me that once we arrived at the spot where the balloon gave off it last signal, we’d find the balloon in five minutes.
It didn’t even take that long.
We looked off to the left and saw it, the yellow parachute sitting on top of some brush in a clearing. That brush ended up being several acres worth of briars, and once we set the chopper down, it took fifteen minutes of struggle to get through the brush. Once we got there, we found everything intact. Larry, and his face, had survived the flight. The waterproof cases kept the GoPro cameras from getting damaged in the elements, and the balloon, despite being in tatters, was still there. We smelled it. It didn’t smell bad, but then again, it had been out in a field for three weeks.
Here's the actual spot where we retrieved the balloon:
We wanted to get up high enough to see the black of space above, and the curvature of the Earth below. The on-board cameras lasted as long about two hours and 45 minutes, meaning they cut out around 85,000 feet. Before that, though, they picked up the shot we wanted, and also showed a jet passing at least 50,000 feet below the balloon. The cameras also recorded sound, and before poking through the top layer of clouds, you could hear the echoes of jet engines off in the distance. The lunchbox was well balanced, and the movements are smooth, even during the time when the balloon passed through the jet stream.
We recovered the balloon. We got the video. And August got something else. “To have a picture that I can go, ‘Here’s a picture that I worked out getting this thing taken, that shows me, space, that shows me, a planet beneath me.’” He said with a sigh, “That’s a thrill.”
Hackerspace Charlotte has another launch planned in the spring.
Have a look at the web exclusive video: