Monday, November 18, 2013

Mission Beta

By Jake Messner and Javire Chia-Hsing You

On November 9, 2013 we woke up at 4:45 A.M. to drive south and launch our second weather ballooning project, Mission Beta. The new payload contained sensors with significantly improved accuracy and decreased mass.

We inflated and launched our 6’ diameter balloon in Knox Town Park in central New York.

We watched our huge balloon and red parachute sail out of view before beginning our drive west. This time, our tracking operated via GPS, which meant that FCC regulations allowed us to track the balloon while in the air. As we drove east on the Mass Pike, we watched the balloon's blip on our map hurtle across central Massachusetts. The signal stopped moving near Hubbardston, MA and we turned north to recover the payload.

As we approached the balloon, the screaming 120 dB buzzer affixed to the payload’s side alerted us to the balloon’s position. Unfortunately, the buzzing was far above our heads, where the nylon tether had become tangled 60 feet high in a pine tree.

We found ourselves in another race against the clock to get the balloon out of the tree before darkness. After a quick trip to Wal-mart, we returned to the landing site with helium, party balloons, fishing line, and a bow and arrows. A nearby resident graciously allowed up to borrow his 24-foot extension ladder and a 30-foot pole. For two hours, we worked to recover our tantalizingly close payload. We designed a pulley system that was raised by helium balloons, attempting to loop 500 lb. fishing line around the payload capsule, but the wind gusts prevented us from finding our 60-foot high target.

We strung fishing line to the arrows and shot at the parachute, but both of were poor shots and we eventually tangled all our fishing line in the various surrounding trees. In a final effort as the sun slipped below the horizon, we climbed the 24-foot ladder and raised the 30-foot pole from the top. As expected, the pole swung dishearteningly far below the dangling white box.

Disappointed, we drove east to a friend’s house (Thanks Burns family!) to spend the night, not forgetting the image of a bright red parachute swinging in the wind. That night, we drew various recovery mechanisms and discussed their possibilities. We were thrilled about our ideas…and yet it was a difficult feat to access a violently swinging prismatic container, suspended high in a tree in woods owned by the state of Massachusetts. We couldn’t harm any trees and access was difficult due to surrounding small trees and tall shrubbery in the area. When morning came, we looked for help. Eugene Sokolovsky, a professional tree climber in Worcester, agreed to hike into the woods with us and climb the tree that had ensnared our payload. For less than the cost of constructing a new recovery device, Eugene was able to quickly scale a hardwood tree nearby and pull our parachute and capsule from the pine tree.

Excited to have finally recovered our payload, we opened it on the drive home and found the following data:

We obtained timed temperature and altitude readings during the ascent. During the descent, the temperature readings were highly inaccurate due to the rapid descent rate and the g-force affecting the thermometer chip. We also suspect that the thermometer stopped taking readings at approximately 29,000 meters because it froze.

The GoPro HERO2 HD took incredible footage for the duration of the flight. We will be posting the launch and flight videos to YouTube once they have been edited (right now, we have over six hours of video). As the balloon ascended, the camera captured arial shots of the central New York area.

At 100,000 feet, the majority of Earth's atmosphere appears as a blue sliver above the horizon and the sun shines from the blackness of space.

Our balloon popped spectacularly at approximately 103,000 feet, exploding in confetti-like strands of latex.

As the balloon descended, the GoPro captured shots of Massachusetts' Quabbin Reservoir and Asnacomet Pond before falling into the woods near Hubbardston.

Along with our camera and Arduino sensors, we also recovered our geiger counter and four canisters of film from the payload capsule. We plan to analyze and graph the data from these resources in the upcoming months to determine the effectiveness and continuity of the Ozone Layer in New York and Massachusetts. In Spring of 2014, we plan to launch a third balloon mission to measure the direct correlation between levels of radiation and specific atmospheric gases. Over the winter, we'll be planning for our third launch (Mission Gamma) and compiling our research for presentation in the Spring. 


  1. I want to help you guys out, let me know if there's anything I can do . The friendly neighbor in Hubbardston.

  2. Great update, boys, and spectacular pictures.

    (Remember: you always have beds in West Boylston. But next time you have to stay for breakfast!)

    Loree Burns