Most of the time, our Far Horizons high-altitude balloon flights are during the day. One of the main reasons is visibility…our balloons are much easier to see during the day, especially as we’re trying to locate them in a tall corn field or in a stand of trees. It is much safer to travel around and retrieve the payload during the day, especially if we are working with middle school or high school students. The imagery and videos are also much easier to obtain. On Sunday, April 26, 2015, however, we needed to do something a little different: a night flight! We had a few goals for the flight…testing our two-way communications system, testing software for a possible future Adler cubesat, and trying out a camera that would take pictures in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. We also launched as part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge.
We prepared the payload at our usual location, Koerner Aviation, in Kankakee, Illinois.
In the foreground of the image to the left, you can see the two large helium tanks that we used. A balloon flight usually uses one entire tank plus most of a second one. The total amount we use depends on the mass of our payload. More mass means we need more lift. Do you see the frame on the table behind the balloon? That’s a stabilization frame. We attached our cameras to the frame, along with several strobe lights so we could find the payload in the dark after it landed, two GPS tracking units, and a radar reflector to help planes “see” our balloon in the dark. The yellow (or is it green?) and orange fabric attached to the frame is our parachute. The stabilization frame also meant our images and videos were less susceptible to shakiness induced by higher upper-level winds.
After a picture-perfect launch at exactly 7:20 pm, the race was on! The image to the right shows our balloon and payload just after release. The balloon is at the top, the parachute is in the middle, and the parachute is attached to the four corners of the PVC pipe stabilization frame. Cameras and strobe lights are attached on the sides of the frame and the radar reflector is in the middle of the frame.
At one point, our chase team was able to see the balloon by eye as it reached 25,000 feet in altitude. See that white speck in the middle of the blue sky picture to the left? That’s our balloon at 25,182 feet as our chase team was almost directly underneath it!
After reaching a maximum altitude of almost 97,000 feet, the balloon burst, as expected, and the parachute unfurled as the payload reached more dense air at lower altitudes. We tracked the payload to the wind farm just east of Fowler, Indiana – and just missed seeing it land by about 2 minutes. About 100 feet off the road, there it was!
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a payload that lands right in our arms and 10 being a payload that we can’t find (which, unfortunately, has happened a couple of times in 9 years), this really was a 2 on that 1 to 10 scale. This was an easy retrieval. Within a few minutes, we had the frame taken apart, all the pieces in the car, and we were on our way back to Chicago.
So, how did we do? Mixed results.
Our two-way communication system worked, but we were really limited in the distance at which we could detect the balloon. While the system successfully transmitted information to the ground, we lost the signal on the ground, even though we were never more than 8 miles ground distance and 18 miles vertical distance from the balloon. What does this mean? Well, we want to be able to eventually detect the signal from our balloon from as far away as the Adler Planetarium. The balloon could sometimes be 60 miles – or more – away. We have more work to do to get this to work.
Next, the visible/infrared camera. We got some images as we tested software and hardware that we could use in our future CubeSat mission.
The pink hue in the image to the right is due to the sensor of our (purposely) hacked GoPro camera detecting near-infrared light in addition to the usual visible light it normally detects. By removing the IR cut filter, we’re able to image the farmland of Illinois in almost complete darkness. You may notice the way the tree lines between farms stand out as some of the brightest objects. In addition, the conditions and growth on the farms show different hues. This is similar to how Earth monitoring satellites like the Landsat satellites are used to monitor the health and condition of fauna.
Not bad! More about our CubeSat coming up in the next few months.
Finally, as part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge, we wanted to get some nighttime images. Here are a few of our favorites.
We can easily see the Earth’s shadow rising through the troposphere in the image below. The night lights of Lafayette, IN are just visible below the Earth shadow while our payload is still basking in the light of the Sun behind the camera.
Finally, we have an image of the Chicagoland region at night from the stratosphere below.
Chicago and the suburbs show up very, very well at night. Kankakee is the town to the lower left in the image. The lit area to the upper left is the sunlight our balloon could still see at this altitude, which was about 90,000 feet at the time of this picture and the dark area at the upper right is Lake Michigan.
And do you notice that really brightly lit-up oval in the middle? What is that? It baffled us, too! After checking online maps, we figured out that it was Balmoral Park Race Track. It’s brighter than anything else in the picture. Amazing!
Well, our night flight was a lot of fun, and we hope we have a reason to do another one in the future! Many thanks to the Far Horizons volunteers Enoch, Dan, David, Natasha, Alex, and Elliott who helped make this flight a success!