#cougballoon launch, April 2015

On April 19th 2015, a team of engineering students headed down to Salem Municipal Airport in Salem, Oregon. With the assistance of National Weather Service contractor Ted Vaughn, they successfully launched the #cougballoon on its maiden voyage into the stratosphere. The 2015 #cougballoon team consisted of Ben Chin, Cody Glascoe, Mike Hamilton, Mike Hansen, Rebecca Lehman, David McNichol, and Zach Moore, all of which were sophomore electrical engineering students except Rebecca, a freshman and our lone mechanical engineering student.

#cougballoon HQ   #cougballoon HQ

Arriving early that morning in Salem, the team established their basecamp on a grassy field at the airport and began preparations. Having been delayed a week already because of forecasted wind conditions, the team was anxious to see if their hard work was going to finally pay off. Launch was scheduled for later that afternoon around 3:30pm, shortly after the National Weather Service weather balloon launch. The parachute was ready, the radar reflector was ready, the WSU flag was ready, and the balloon was ready. All that was left was the preflight preparation of the payload, which involved connected the over 50Ah of batteries, switching on the cameras, and running an operational test of the radios and GPS modules prior to sealing the payload.

Parachute Test   Payload

When something con go wrong, it will. As the final touches were being placed on the internal components of the payload, the power connector on a camera module broke. After attempting a field repair for ~20 minutes on a tightly cramped payload, the decision was made to launch minus one horizontal camera. Once the payload was sealed and the air traffic control tower had given launch clearance, the team began tying together the payload. After the payload was ready to go, the two GPS feeds were again verified and uh oh...during the attempted field repair an antenna from one of the GPS units must have broken loose. That's why redundancy was built in, and the back up GPS transmitter was still operational.

Securing the payload   Huge balloon

Well, time to launch. Check out the aerial footage of our not-so-smooth launch (fast forward to 2:45). And that little bumping of the payload took out our other horizontal camera, leaving us with only two remaining operational cameras, a camera facing up toward the balloon and one facing down toward the ground.

And we finally launch!!!

Well once the balloon was airborne, we immediately headed back to our tables to monitor the readings. We all took turns holding the antenna (well, mostly David..) to receive the info being transmitted. Our data was coming in smoothly as expected. Because of the method in which we combined our four video feeds into one, we lost a lot of quality in the transmission hence the not exactly HD video....but take a look of what we were able to capture in the video below. We lose the top main screen during the turbulent launch, that's why the screen turns to green about half way through the video.

Well all was well with the data stream for over 90 minutes or so, and the video feed was well...it was as expected. As the incoming data came down through the antenna, through the computer, and posted to the internet, everything seemed to be working as expected. Our altitude was climbing as expected, the exterior and interior temperature was dropping as expected, and our GPS location followed our flight prediction. If you were following us back in April 2015, you'll remember we delayed the launch by a week. The prediction model on the right below was one of the reasons for our delay. Having a balloon fly over an international airport is something you should never do...

Flight Prediction   Bad Flight Prediction

We also had a special guest taking flight by hanging out below the payload. The character Baymax from the move Big Hero 6 was graciously donated by Mike Hamilton's 3 year old daughter. She made sure he wouldn't fall apart during the flight with a little sparkly glue pro.

Baymax Before   Baymax After

As we continued to view our temperature data on the charts being posted to our old website, we noticed a peculiar anomaly on the temperature graph. Our exterior temperature numbers were falling as expected, and currently somewhere around -40°F, but our interior payload temperature sensors (all three of them) showed we were around 120°F! And climbing!! After some discussion on why that could be happened, we came to the assumption that our video transmitter was getting too hot. And although the heatsink we affixed it to provided enough heat relief at ground level, up in the higher and thinner atmosphere there isn't enough air to allow the fins of the heat sink to do their job. This fact, coupled with the incredible payload insulating job we did, created a perfect oven! So by the time the outside temperatures reached -50°F, the interior of the payload leveled off around 150°F.

The graphs below contain the actual data sent from the maiden voyage of the #cougballoon. Our story continues below the graphs.

As you may have noticed from above, sometime around 4:38pm that day we lost communication with the balloon. Our spirits may have been slightly crushed for a few moments, as we all wondered if we would ever see the #cougballoon again and what may have happened. Did we sufficiently cook the electronics inside the payload? Did it somehow get captured by an alien spacecraft? Well about 30 minutes later we're all eating on some pizza and just chatting, not paying attention to our computers as much, when someone looks over and there is data streaming acorss the screen again!! We were back in business. Shortly after that, our GPS signal is revived as well, and we begin the chase!

We got on the freeway and headed south. Since our live map was on our website, the only tracking device we needed was our cell phones! We simply pulled up the map in our browser and waiting for our backup GPS to update. We headed south toward beautiful Scio, Oregon and began to get a bit nervous as we got closer. The trees began to get taller and more frequent. We all wondered if we would be doing a little tree climbing that day....

Scio Oregon

When we were about 2 miles from where we believed the balloon had landed, one of our cell phones rang. Not unusual on this day as we had a lot of things happening and our phones were ringing just a little more than usual. Before we even answered the phone we realized that this must be the call because the balloon had just stopped moving on our map and the payload had a placard affixed to the exterior with our phone numbers and contact information. So we enthusiastically answered the phone to a gentleman saying he has something of ours and it landed in his backyard!

After many months of research, reading, testing, and building, this was one moment we had all hoped would happen. After reading so many other stories of unsuccessful balloon launches where the payloads were never recovered or landed in a place unreachable without a helicopter, We were beyond excited about the #cougballoon landing in someone's backyard. It was that simple.

So as we pull up to the house of Larry and Barbara Brown, they enthusiastically greet us in their front yard of their beautiful farm and we see the entire #cougballoon package resting on their porch.

The Browns

After telling the Browns about the balloon and our project, we went over to open the payload. As soon as the lid came off, we could tell it was definitely warm inside there still. Hot, to be specific. We noticed out video transmitter was jarred loose on rough takeoff as well. The Browns just so happened to be working in their backyard and saw our crazy payload falling from the sky. It landed in a small tree and became slightly tangled, but Larry Brown simply cut a few of the payload lines to bring it all down. We chatted for a little while, thanked the Browns for their hospitality, and headed back north to Salem.

By the time we got back to Salem the rest of the team had packed up the basecamp. We thanked Ted for putting up with us for the day and go on the road to head home. The #cougballoon had launched, and it was a success.

We did it.

Thank you for taking the time to read our story. If you or anyone you know would be interested in assisting us with this year's launch, please visit our Sponsors page.

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