Lifetime Learners, Lost Transmissions & Cosmic Cosmos
What happens when you take the Far Horizons high altitude ballooning program, add enthused adult citizen scientists, and mix in booze? “Mission Near Space: 21 +” A one-of-a kind, hands on adventure for lifelong learning and adult stratospheric science enthusiasts.
A One of a Kind Adventure
The crew of “Mission Near Space: 21+” met in the morning with smiles and excitement about their journey to the stratosphere. Members brought mementos to launch to the edge of space. Items ranged from Storm Trooper PEZ Dispensers to a DIY Tardus.
The event was a grown up edition of the Far Horizon Camp: Mission Near Space that is offered to middle schoolers during the summer. In this “advanced edition” the adult crew was able to embrace deeper science content, enjoy cosmic cocktails that flew to 90,000 ft., but much like the kids camp, embrace that childlike wonder that comes from watching your balloon travel towards space.
Once at the airfield in Kankakee, the group split into teams: The Balloon Crew, who carefully handled the pressurized helium tanks and inflated the balloon, The Tracking Team, who worked with Far Horizon Members to install tracking components in the vans and payload, as well as a Payload Team, who checked batteries, turned on experiments inside the payload and booted up the onboard computer, along with the GoPro Team who prepped cases, cards and cameras for the chilly flight to come.
Rarely used in the Spring, but luckily covered in prep, was a crash course on the Far Horizon’s Way-finder, a beeping locator that has been helpful in the past for finding popped balloon payloads in high cornfields. The Way-finder picks up a signal emitted from the payload and registers the signal with a beep that increases in volume when pointed closer to the transmitter. Point it away, the beep lessens and static is heard.
Once all the teams were set, it was time to wave goodbye and launch! As we were bidding our balloon a fond farewell, we had no idea it would be the last communications we would have with it.
Minutes after the launch, as the balloon reached a little under a mile above the Earth, all radio signals stopped. The entire team scrambled through channels, but no messages were received past the five minute mark. Hoping something would turn in our favor we loaded the fans and pursued the balloon using the predicted path.Still in high spirits, each team named their vans, “Van Damme” and “Van Halen.” But unlike “Van Halen,” soon nobody wanted to “Jump.” Over a half hour had passed and we realized we were all “Running with the Devil”…okay, I’ll stop, basically their was no change in the radio silence.
We drove to a spot on the country road where the predicted track mapped the balloon would pass. In the bright midday sun it was nearly impossible to make out the balloon. We later found out that forest fires in Canada caused a haze to impede our view of the sky that day. Luckily, one of the participants remembered their training. “Would the Way-finder” work? Ken, our fearless leader was doubtful and chuckled, “Sure, why not. Let’s get it out.” So we did, we turned it to its maximum level of sensitivity and heard static. “Hold it straight up,” Ken said. We did… “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP” we had contact! The group cheered!
It was one of several moments that day that felt straight out of a movie. Swept up in that giddy energy of exploration, we were making progress! Now this was a long shot, the balloon is several miles up at this point and the way-finder’s range spreads out the farther it is sensing. As we moved the instrument from 45 to 90 degrees, the volume of each beep increased. We had a pulse!
By this time the balloon was nearing it’s maximum altitude and we needed to board “Van Damme” and “Van Halen,” to beat our payload to the predicted landing zone. If we could visually spot the parachute on its way down, it would increase our chances of retrieving the payload enormously. The one feature of the Way-finder I failed to mention is that it is LINE OF SIGHT only. Which means that if there is anything obstructing the instrument’s path of receiving the signal, its “sight,” we would lose contact with payload completely. We needed to hurry. About this time the balloon reached it’s maximum altitude… and began its descent.