The Launch Part 2 – A Gift from the Gods

At the end of Part 1 I mentioned the biggest surprise of all occurring on launch day. Before I get to that particular surprise (which happened at the end of the flight), I’m going to keep you in suspense and walk through the launch itself. We arrived at the launch site, and quickly started assembling the hardware.

Arriving at the launch site

Half of us started tying the balloon and parachute together with cord, and then proceeded to fill the balloon. The other half got to work putting the payload together and praying that it would work following the disaster the previous day (detailed in Part 1). It wouldn’t let us off easy with the physical assembly either though, as putting all the pieces together came with it’s own problems; as the other half were happily filling up the balloon with the help of the guys from CUSF, suddenly a soldered joint on a wire to our LCD screen decided to break off.

I personally didn’t see it happen, but I looked over as Jake was dealing with the problem and over the course of ~10 seconds, panic washed over my entire body as I slowly realised what just happened. Curiously however, Jake, the man who I thought should have been the most worried because he discovered the problem first, looked completely zen. Even though he was probably frantically swearing to himself in his head, he calmly picked up the broken wire, stripped it with his teeth, wrapped it around the joint, and stuck it in place with duct tape.

Duct tape = MVP

We were all probably just as worried and sceptical about this solution as you are right now, but it miraculously worked for the entire flight! Duct tape quickly became our best friend, as we used it to stick everything else in place, and then taped on the lid to keep the whole thing secure(-ish).

After a few more minutes of filling the balloon, and an ingenious method of measuring the lift using water bottles (thank you convenient weight density of water), we were finally ready to launch. The balloon was nicely plump and trying to escape the chains of gravity, the payload was assembled, and everything was securely held together using a few metres of cord.

Praise the sun!

We released it and it actually rose up and flew into the air! I’m aware that this probably shouldn’t have been surprising, but after all that we’d done wrong it was a lovely change of pace to see that the most important component worked properly the first (and only) time, even though I have no doubts that this was all due to the help from the guys at CUSF.

The balloon rose into the air and it was majestic. As it climbed slowly out of sight it was the image of serenity, and we were graciously allowed a few moments to take stock and appreciate the beauty of life, the universe, and everything. Before long, however, we had to get a move on in our minibus and chase the balloon.

I honestly still can’t believe it actually rose

Chasing and recovering the payload is one of the best parts of launching a high altitude balloon, in fact it was personally my favourite. It’s not often in life that you get to track a flying probe on a map until it explodes, then falls all the way from space back to earth in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost as if you get to be a real life pirate, as you search for the treasure that you ‘buried’ all the way from space; you literally get to be a space pirate.

After 2 hours of following the balloon on the map, we were close to the predicted landing site and decided to grab some lunch in a nearby town while waiting for the balloon to burst, which was predicted to happen around an hour from the time that we stopped. Everything was going to plan; everything was going smoothly. However, as if on cue, the balloon burst early.

We were blissfully ignorant of this event while grabbing lunch, and it wasn’t until around 10 minutes after that we checked the IRC chat and found the guys helping us out telling us politely to get a move on! The original predictions were thrown out the window and we had to change our plans entirely.

The IRC chat at the time describes the events perfectly

However the real twist in the story hadn’t quite come yet, as fate had one more spanner to throw in the works – our parachute decided to not work.

The cruel hands of gravity had grabbed our poor payload with a lot more force than predicted, and it came hurtling towards earth at a rapid 25 miles an hour. The consensus in the IRC was that the parachute probably got tangled up in the remnants of the balloon and the flailing cord that tied it all together. This was bad news.

The payload however, as an autonomous entity without silly human emotions such as fear, was unfazed by the mortal danger it was in, and it kept on happily transmitting telemetry to the habhub receivers as it dived towards the ground. Despite the crisis, it was exciting to keep the habhub tracker page open and see the packets coming in one by one to update the map live; as it dropped closer and closer to the ground, the tracker received less and less packets, and following the map became a game of seeing if there’d be just one more…

In the end, the last packet came at an incredibly low 350 metres to landing, from a receiver over 50 kilometres away! We got lucky again. (Thank you to ‘db_G6ZH’ on the IRC for running the receiver! I mentioned it at the end of Part 1, but the receiving network run by UKHAS really is incredible. Make sure you don’t slack off in receiving though, any packets you upload will help them help you!)

This gave us a great chance for finding our payload, as the last packet being received so low let us off with a small search area. Whether the payload would will be in one piece where it landed was another question completely because of the speed it fell at, but we parked our minibus as close to the final coordinates as possible, and began the search.

The tracker gave us coordinates in and around a small forest, so we split up and started looking. Then, around an hour into the search, came the surprise that I first mentioned all the way back at the end of Part 1 of this post – the very same parachute that malfunctioned in the air managed to get caught on a tree branch, causing it to swing from side to side, preventing what would have been a fatal impact. We came across the payload in a small clearing within the trees, hanging from said branch around 5 metres in the air. It was like a gift from the gods.

a miracle

It was glorious. We had to take a few moments to realise the sheer unlikeliness of what just happened. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong in the past couple of days did, but with the help of the community and a lot (a LOT) of luck, in the end we found our treasure. The thing was even still happily displaying tweets despite there being only duct tape holding one of the wires connecting the screen’s pins in place, and there’s a great picture that our pi camera took at the moment it landed in the forest:

Couldn’t have chosen a better tweet for this moment!

And here’s our final team photo sans sleepy-head:


Thank you for reading! This post is getting a little long so I’ll put the launch video, pi camera photos in space, and more funny bits of the IRC chat in one final post, so stay tuned!