Recovery Drama

After a successful launch, the balloon team was on fire! We had just successfully launched a balloon into the stratosphere, and everyone was jumping from excitement. But very quickly our enthusiasm turned to dread as we had yet to receive a GPS signal. We went from the high of releasing the balloon to a state of depression as we anxiously refreshed the webpage, hoping the GPS would come through. Without a signal, all hope was lost for recovering the balloon.

We waited...

And waited...

Students finally started to go home after about 3 hours of waiting. We set-up a Twitter account to inform the recovery team of updates in hopes we would get a signal. But we had little hope.

I went home and waited some more...

And then after 5 hours of waiting, at exactly 6:06 PM, I got our first GPS signal! The GPS came back to life, and it was pinging the landing site! I jumped out of my chair and instantly started calling the other instructors. Our depression turned to utter glee as we planned the recovery efforts!

Landing Site

Our balloon had landed 70 miles SE from our launch site in the tiny town of Normanna. This was about 30 miles further SE than the predicted impact site. Using the GPS coordinates in Google Earth, I was able to get a satellite image of the landing location. The balloon appeared to have landed in some trees next to an abandoned shed.

GPS Tracking of Balloon Impact Site

GPS Tracking of Balloon Impact Site

Retrieval of Balloon

The next day, 2 science teachers and I drove 10 students the 70 miles to retrieve the balloon from Normanna. Now, I would like preface this story by saying that I did not make any of this up. Read on for the incredible drama of recovering this balloon:

We followed the GPS coordinates to the entrance of a ranch. To our surprise, we were greeted by a couple of ranch hands who were expecting us! Turns out they had found the balloon, but not after an adventure of their own.

The day before, local residents were freaked out by a loud beeping sound (audio beacon on our payload) and immediately called the sheriff. The balloon and payload were 45 feet up a tree, and they had no idea what it was. All they saw was a bright shiny object that was making loud beeping noises. The sheriff was at a loss and decided it was a dangerous "unidentified object." He proceeded to file an FBI report, and this “UFO sighting” was broadcast on the local radio station! Fortunately, a few hours later, one of the ranch hands called a local college professor who informed them it was most likely a weather balloon.

The next day, just hours before our arrival, the workers used a shot gun to shoot down branches to release our payload (only in Texas). It stayed stuck so they also used a tree saw to saw apart our payload. The balloon and parachute are still stuck in the tree, but they were able to retrieve the rest.

Balloon and parachute stuck in a tree

Balloon and parachute stuck in a tree

They brought the remains of the payload equipment out to us, and the middle school students were jumping around in excitement! The GoPro camera, GPS tracker, and flight computer all survived the journey intact! We could not believe our luck!

Unfortunately, after the workers left, we quickly realized the SD cards from the camera and computer were missing. The chances of them falling out during impact were zero as the camera was enclosed in a sealed case. Just in case, the students searched the whole impact area for the tiny SD card. But our conclusion is that the workers removed the SD cards before returning the payload. Such a huge disappointment to the students. We have reached out to the land owner and the sheriff, and we made all efforts to get them back! After several emails and phone calls, we have given up hope that we will recover the data.

Getting back the remains of the payload

Getting back the remains of the payload

But not to be discouraged, we are repeating the launch with a new balloon and payload on April 25th! Surely it won't land on the same ranch?

Planning to launch your own weather balloon? Tackle the ultimate STEM project with our all-inclusive classroom guide to launching a weather balloon PLUS links to a shared Google Drive folder with TONS of extra resources! Based on three years of successful weather balloon experience with over 300 middle school students, this guide is everything you need to design a payload, select an experiment, launch, and recover a weather balloon from a 100,000-foot journey to the edge of space!