In 2012 we came up with the idea of launching a weather balloon with a payload consisting of weather data collection equipment and GoPro cameras in to the eye of a hurricane. And thus, HURRB was born: the Hurricane Research Balloon.
We built a prototype using a cheap Styrofoam cooler and launched it from near Buffalo, Texas in late May of 2012. Everything about it was a success. It worked.
Last June, we tried it again, this time using a Pelican Storm Case as the payload. It seems to be made for this type of thing and our test launch from Ardmore, Oklahoma was again a roaring success. Our payload managed to make it to 97,600 feet before the balloon burst due to the extreme low pressures of the upper atmosphere. Check out this video summary of the launch from last year: https://youtu.be/ZRviUYMdW90
It is now time to test HURRB again. This time, from Colorado City, Texas. I like choosing new locations each year in the center part of the country to make things relatively easy. Why? Well, simply put, during a hurricane, it is going to very, very tough. The stress of getting in to the eye and then getting a 1500 gram weather balloon ready to hoist a 4.5 pound payload 100,000 feet up is enough to make most people say, “forget it”. Not us. We think it can be done, we just need the chance. Practice doesn’t ever make perfect when dealing with the weather but it sure helps. We have to keep on testing in order to be ready when the time comes for the adventure of a lifetime.
HURRB has a special APRS transmitter that will give us its location above the Earth and then once it is on the ground. It also has an on-board satellite based tracking system that is a great back-up to the APRS transmitter. This is how we will track HURRB.
Far more important is the weather data we will be collecting. The High Altitude Science Eagle Weather Computer will log temperature, pressure and humidity every six seconds. It will also give us a detailed GPS track as well. This computer worked flawlessly last year but right now, it is malfunctioning on us and will be of no use for this test. However, failure is always an option and you have to learn from setbacks. We know the computer works and will make sure we have a working one for the real deal when ever that day comes. So no weather data from this flight but the GPS info from the SPOT locator and the APRS will tell us a lot about the wind above the Texas country-side.
Then there are the twin GoPro cameras. These give us the awesome shot of our wonderful planet from many miles up. One camera faces upward towards the sky and the balloon while the other camera is angled down but out just enough to show a horizon from time to time. High altitude balloon enthusiasts know all too well how spectacular the view is from 100,000 feet. We can’t wait to see what we capture tomorrow.
This launch is special too because of a dying east Pacific hurricane. Blanca is slowly weakening as it interacts with the Baja peninsula well to the west and south of where we are. However, the high level cirrus outflow is making its way across the Southwest and in to the skies above Texas. We will fly HURRB through this and probably 60,000 feet above it! While not the goal of getting HURRB in to the eye of a hurricane, we’ll take the cirrus outflow as a great first step.
We plan to set up and launch from Colorado City’s northwest side around 6:30 AM local time or 7:30 AM ET. If you would like to watch us prep the balloon and launch it – click the link below for the special HURRB page we’ve set up. There is also a link to track HURRB via the APRS website.
Once HURRB reaches burst altitude and the balloon pops, the payload will fall back to the ground via parachute. We will then locate it via the GPS tracking we have and hopefully recover the payload before early afternoon, if not sooner. We will do our best to stream the chase and recovery but some of the scrub brush area of Texas that we will likely travel through has no cellular data signal and so we might lose our feed. Once we recover HURRB, I will Tweet about it and make sure I post some video just as soon as possible.
This is exciting, a weather geek’s dream shot. I am hopeful that we have another perfect launch and recovery tomorrow – I guess there is only one way to find out. We’ll see you (if you’re up) from Colorado City, Texas bright and early tomorrow!
Last year I announced that we were working on a project to launch a weather balloon and accompanying payload in to the eye of a hurricane when it makes landfall along the U.S. coast. The goal was to capture never-before-seen video as well as log GPS data to learn what the air flow is like inside, and above, the center of a hurricane after it makes landfall. We call it the HURRB Project.
We had a successful test in May of 2012 in Texas and were ready for a potential launch during last year’s hurricane season but the opportunity was never there.
The idea is to have the balloon lift a payload consisting of four GoPro cameras, a GPS data logger, a satellite tracking beacon and an APRS transmitter in to the eye of a hurricane. The payload was ascend up through the eye and if it clears without any mishaps, it would rise to 100,000 feet or more before the balloon burst due to the extreme low pressure. Then, the payload would fall back to the ground via parachute and we would retrieve it by locating it via the satellite tracker or the APRS unit. People do this all the time as a hobby all around the world. We want to do it in one of the most unique environments on the planet. If it works, we could have some of the most incredible video of the inside of a hurricane ever taken. As the payload rises above the eye, assuming we can get it to clear the swirling, turbulent tempest, we should be able to see the hurricane come in to view as the balloon goes on up to the edge of space. The view from 100,000 feet is incredible. We’ve seen it with our test launch. Looking down on the hurricane with our HD GoPro cams should be absolutely stunning. The only way we’ll know is if we try.
Prepping of HURRB for test launch in May, 2012
In addition to potentially once-in-a-lifetime video, we hope to gather valuable GPS data every 5 seconds that the payload is aloft. This will tell us a lot about the air flow in the eye and above the hurricane. We have no idea where the balloon will go once launched. We’ve asked scientists from NOAA and at various universities what their thoughts are and no one has a clear cut answer. That is what makes this so exciting: discovery. We will know once we try and that is an incredible motivator to get this done.
Obviously we have to have a hurricane to launch in. It would be best if it were in the middle of the day but even a night landfall will afford us the opportunity to gather the GPS data at the expense of getting any decent video. Who knows? We may get lucky and launch just as the sun is rising in the east. Can you imagine how that would look? Believe me, I have many times.
The project has been funded through private contributions from the general public and a few businesses who follow our work. We still have a need for about $1200 in order to purchase a balloon or two for this season and add the very latest GoPro cameras to the payload (ours are second generation HERO2 cams).
This is the HURRB tile available for purchase to help support the project
To help facilitate the fund raising process, we offered a unique opportunity for the public to get involved. We created a special light-weight plastic “tile” that can accomodate a signature or a message. We sell the tiles for $100 each and will include them with the payload to be sent in to the eye. We still have 18 tiles left over from last year’s efforts. We hope to raise the funds we need by selling these last 18 tiles. I’ll send it to you, you sign it, put a message, what ever you like (one person actually painted theirs – a true work of art!) and then send it back to us. We’ll then put it in a container to be sent up with the payload. When it’s all said and done, we’ll send the tile, a piece of the payload, back to you on a specially made frame to hang in your home or office. Talk about a truly rewarding experience in exchange for your support of this project. You may give it as a gift to someone or have the whole family sign it, what ever works for you. As you can see in the photo, people are creative with their tiles.
If you’re interested in helping out with funding, please visit the HURRB page for information on how to purchase a tile. I have 18 left and once they are gone, that’s it, there are no more. We will have them on hand until we finally launch HURRB – whether it be this year or in five years, those tiles go with HURRB on an incredible journey.
HURRB has its own Twitter account too: follow @HURRB and when we wake him up later this month, you’ll see that he has some interesting things to say.
I will have more about this project later in the season once we get closer to the more active portion in August.
Last March I announced an ambitious new project that had the potential of being one of the most exciting that we have ever undertaken. Nick-named HURRB for Hurricane Balloon, the goal is simple: use a weather balloon to loft a payload consisting of four GoPro cams and a collection of GPS recording and transmitting devices in to the eye of a hurricane at landfall. The balloon and payload should reach an altitude of at least 100,000 feet before bursting in which case the payload would fall back to the ground via parachute. That was the idea. And so we embarked on a fund raising campaign and raised the capital needed to build a prototype and test it in Texas last May. As noted in a recent blog post concerning a related project with CNN, the test in May was nearly perfect. All that was needed was a hurricane to launch in to – we had Isaac but its eye was not clear enough nor was its position over southeast Louisiana ideal for recovery. So we passed. Sandy was not a hurricane at landfall, not in the traditional sense, so it was not an option either. Now we wait again for the chance to let HURRB fly.
However, in just the past year, a lot has changed with technology and we will not be waiting around with the same equipment that we ended 2012 with. GoPro debuted a new camera last fall – the Hero3. It has the capability of shooting in stunning, digital cinema quality 4k video! Can you imagine seeing the inside of the eye of a hurricane and then flying out of it to 60,000 feet above it in video that is of the same quality as most digital movies at your local theater? Yeah, you can see why we are excited about this. Add to this the fact that we will use four cameras and not just one or two and it puts this project as #1 on our list of goals to accomplish in 2013.
Beyond the video, which will be nothing short of extraordinary I am sure, there is GPS data to collect. Using APRS, an Amateur Radio beacon, and other on-board GPS data recorders, we can track the payload and record its movements in 5 second intervals. This will help us to get a clear picture of the wind flow inside the eye of a hurricane as it is making landfall. We are going to donate ALL of the GPS data that we collect to anyone interested in utilizing it. There are a lot of questions to be answered. Where will the balloon go once released? Will it go straight up if we launch in the middle of the eye? Will it reach the top, probably 35,000 to 40,000 feet up and keep going up or will it then head off in one particular direction? We do not know. The project, once it succeeds, will give us the answer. I am a science and weather geek by my very nature and this project is as cool as they come. We are hoping for the chance to launch but realize that this will mean we have to have a landfalling hurricane this coming season. Obviously we do not control that nor do we wish for the painful aftermath that hurricanes leave behind. The way I look at it, if there is a hurricane, who better to be there and at least learn as much as we can about it? Right? Perhaps this project will inspire others to do similar work. After all, landfall is when it matters the most, let’s learn when given the chance, no matter how rare that chance may be.
HURRB has its own Twitter account and will post links to its data feeds and other info when the time comes. Feel free to follow along: @HURRB
We plan to test again this coming May in Texas. Why Texas? It’s flat and fairly easy to recover the payload there. We know (boy do we know) that finding the payload after launch can be difficult, especially when we do it in a hurricane. So we figure getting the launch part down to a precise science is vastly more important that worrying about simulating recovery conditions. We will have GPS tracking devices on the payload, two layers of back-up, maybe three, and thus we are confident we will at least know where it lands after a launch in to the eye of a hurricane. The hardest part will be getting in to position to launch in the first place. We need to get everything ready so that all we have to do is plop down a tarp, unload the helium tank and fill that giant balloon, tie it off and let it go in under 10 minutes. So much will depend on how large the eye is, how fast it is moving and where we are inside of it. Our goal is to be in the dead center where the wind should be almost calm. This gives us a real shot at letting that balloon go and having it rise at about 1200 feet per second. In less than half an hour, if all goes well, the APRS unit should tell us that we cleared the eye. If we can just do that, I will be so happy, as will the entire team. This is why we need to test again in May. We must get everything ready in advance and know the role of each team member. The clock will be ticking and we will be under enormous pressure to get things done and launched before the other side of the eye arrives. Remember – this is all to be done at showtime inside the eye of a hurricane, not on a nice sunny day in Texas. Practice will make things easier, but not perfect, it’s never perfect.
As you can see, we have several major projects in the works for this season. This is what the off-season is for. We are glad to have the time to plan and talk things over, to innovate and be ready for the chance to do some good when a hurricane does come calling. We hope you’ll following along throughout the coming months and can be with us when everything comes together. Whether it be this HURRB project, our remote cams or the app, we have three distinct but related projects that can help to bring you the best hurricane news and information that we can. I’ll post updates about these projects periodically over the coming weeks and months. Then, before we know it, June 1 will be here. We will be ready, that much I can promise you.
Sometimes failure is an option. Actually, failure is often not an option but rather a necessary evolutionary step within a project. Learning from failure is how one eventually succeeds.
Allow me to explain….
You may be aware of our HURRB project. The goal of this project is to send a payload, via weather balloon, to the edge of space from inside the eye of a hurricane. The resulting video and GPS data that we could gather will probably be nothing short of extraordinary.
Kerry Mallory, from Houston, assists with the test launch of HURRB back in May
We tested the project in late May near Buffalo, Texas with near perfect results. The payload, made of a $2.36 cooler, had four GoPro HD cameras attached to its outside. On the inside was a collection of tracking equipment, including the first Android phone – the HTC G1. It would send its GPS position over the cellular network as long as it was below a few thousand feet. We also had a SPOT satellite based GPS beacon that would work from the ground to around 59,000 feet. We launched our balloon and it went to at least 94,000 feet and probably higher than that. We do not know for sure since we did not have a GPS tracker that worked above the consumer standard 59,000 feet mark. I estimate 94,000 feet based on the ascent rate and the amount of time the video shows before the balloon burst. In any case, everything went about as well as could be expected considering it was our first attempt at this project.
A look inside of the CNN "Yeager" payload. The orange device is the SPOT locator, the yellow device is the APRS unit and the black device is the G1 cell phone.
Then, in mid-June, Chris Erickson, a producer from CNN International Newsource, got in touch with me asking for some advice on a similar project he was putting together. He was not wanting to launch a balloon in to a hurricane, but rather was working on a story about how pretty much anyone with a little ingenuity could pull off this growing hobby of launching high-altitude balloons to capture stunning HD video from the edge of space.
I agreed to help out and actually asked if we could test some additional equipment on the CNN payload. We wanted to test out an APRS beacon, used by amateur radio operators to send out data and other messages via the amateur radio band. The GPS chip in the unit that we had purchased would work well above the 59,000 feet altitude mark and this meant we could track it to 100,000 feet or higher – which was Chris’s goal. I also contributed our SPOT satellite tracker and our G1 phone to help make sure we could find the payload once it fell back to Earth.
A look at the balloon as it is filled at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, GA
On June 23, exactly a month after we first tested HURRB in Texas, I met up with CNN, actually several producers and reporters from their International Newsource group, in Peachtree City, Georgia. I was joined by HurricaneTrack.com supporter and HAM radio operator, Kerry Mallory. It was his funding that provided the APRS unit that we would test during the CNN launch. Since every cool science project needs a nick-name, this was one was called “Yeager” after Chuck Yeager who first broke the sound barrier back in 1947.
With the help of the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City, about 25 of us gathered to set Yeager loose in to the warm Georgia sky near 8am ET, Saturday, June 23. The balloon and payload, which had three GoPro cams attached, took off almost straight up and stayed nearly above our heads for at least 20 minutes. We tracked it using the APRS website on our iPhones and were all very excited about getting Yeager in to the air. Now it was time for a quick bite to eat before we would set out to retrieve the payload after the balloon burst upon reaching its maximum altitude – hopefully 100,000 feet or higher.
As it turned out, something went wrong. The payload only made it to 66,000 feet before falling back to the ground. There was considerable disappointment and I wondered immediately what had happened.
The SPOT locator told us where to look as it sent out a signal every 10 minutes to a special page on our account with their website. There was no data from the G1 phone and the last APRS reading showed Yeager was at 5100 feet. It is important to note that we had the APRS set to beacon its location every two minutes. So it was entirely possible that the payload was on the ground between updates. And, since this system operates via the amateur radio network, it would be difficult to get a signal out to the Internet via repeaters unless one was very close by to Yeager’s location on the ground. In other words, the higher up the APRS unit is, the more repeaters “hear” its message. When it’s on the ground, it would have to be very close to either a hand held radio receiver or a ground based repeater.
iPhone photo of my laptop and the location of the SPOT locator which is where the burst balloon remnants, the parachute and the wooden dowels were found - the SPOT device was still attached to the dowel
We drove to the location of the SPOT tracker and found something shocking. Only the balloon, which had not completely shattered when it burst, the parachute and the wooden support dowels used to attach the balloon to the payload via thin rope were left. Attached to one of the dowels was the SPOT locator device – but there was no cooler, no payload. We were dumbfounded. Had someone stolen the payload? Anyone who knew where to look on the APRS website could track Yeager but only we knew the coordinates that the SPOT beacon was sending out. What happened? Where was the payload and the GoPro cams?
We looked all over the surrounding wooded area where the remnants of the balloon and parachute were found. No clues, none at all. We went up to the fire station which is along the Flint River and Hwy 16 between Senoia and Griffin. There we talked to local law enforcement and asked if they had heard anything. Who knows? Maybe someone saw what happened. The two deputies were very helpful and curious about the project. They made some calls and rallied up a couple of more deputies to put the word out about the missing payload. We searched a wooded area along the last known trajectory from the SPOT locator and the APRS unit but to no avail. The CNN crew needed to get back to Atlanta, sadly, without a conclusion to their story. At least not the conclusion they were hoping for. Kerry and I remained to keep looking, as did a tree climbing expert who had come along in case Yeager was high up in a tree top.
Then, something beyond all of our imaginations happened.
This is the backyard of the Garrett family in Brooks, GA where the G1 phone landed after falling from at least 66,000 feet
One of our support team members in Nevada, Paul Bowman (it was Paul’s G1 that we were using, and he too is an active HAM operator) called and said that the G1 had “phoned home”. This meant that the G1 had been turned on and it sent a message to Paul telling him where it was. We could not believe it. This meant, perhaps, that the payload was there too. Paul said, “It’s in someone’s house over on Lakeview Drive!”. I showed the deputies the coordinates and they said that it was just around the corner from where we were. So away we went to check it out.
Within a few minutes we were all parked in the drive way of Justin Garrett. The two deputies asked him about the phone and whether or not he had seen the payload. I approached and told him it was a black cellphone. He said, “Yes! I found a cell phone in my back yard a little while ago”. I nearly passed out. “Really?!??!” I responded. “Where is it?”
He showed it to me, it was on his work table in his garage, right where Paul said the GPS coordinates indicated it would be. He told me he was mowing the back yard when he looked down and spotted the phone. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, wondering who had been in his yard with an old camera phone. After he completed his chore, he went in to the garage and turned on the phone. This triggered it to send the message to Paul and within 5 minutes, a group of people he had never met before shows up in his drive way. It was incredible.
We told him what we were doing and asked if we could look around his yard. “No problem,” he said. After about 15 minutes of looking all over his large back yard, we we still empty handed. No payload. Only this phone that had somehow landed in his yard. This meant that it had fallen out of the payload and landed there. This also meant that the payload was probably broken in to pieces. We were closer to finding it, I thought, but this was a challenge. Where was the rest of the payload and specifically, the APRS unit. It had to be near by.
As the hot Georgia sun beat down on us, we became increasingly frustrated. Where could this darn thing be? Surely it had to have fallen near the G1 phone. Then it dawned on me. Ask Kerry to turn on his hand held radio to see if the APRS was close by. It just might be still transmitting its location and if so, Kerry’s radio may pick it up. It was worth a shot. My hunch turned out to be correct. Within a few minutes, we picked up the beacon from the APRS unit. It had to be within a mile or less of where we were. Since no other APRS sites could “hear it”, we knew we were close and it was on the ground or in a tree near by.
The Garrett family leading Kerry and me through the woods as we looked for the missing payload
This boosted our spirits and we searched in the thick woods to the east of the Garrett’s house. He and his family even gave us a guided tour in to some trails to get deeper in to the woods, eventually reaching the Flint River. Ticks were attacking us like zombies hungry for flesh. It was hot and we were all quite miserable. Still no luck.
Kerry and I looked at his radio and scrolled through the data received from the APRS unit. Sure enough, it gave us the biggest clue yet. We had the GPS coordinates. They read: 33 14.15 by 84 26.03. I ran to the Tahoe where my laptop was connected to the Internet to convert the lat/long pairs in to something that I put in to Google Earth. I did not realize, probably because of the heat and the excitement of the day, that no conversion was needed. Still, I used some website’s conversion tool to convert what I had to decimal degrees. I did not realize that I had already had that info. The resulting output erroneously put the APRS unit, and presumably Yeager, really close to the Flint River but on its east side.
The missing CNN weather balloon payload was somewhere in those woods
Kerry and I drove around to the edge of an enormous field. It was bordered to the west by a foreboding line of trees which surrounded the Flint River and its many smaller streams and tributaries. I told Kerry that the APRS location was only 1800 feet in. It was the toughest 1800 feet ever. We had very little with us to cut through the thick brush, briars and bramble that stood between us and the APRS and Yeager. Snakes, ticks and spiders were in ample supply. On we went, pushing deeper in to the woods. We arrived at the coordinates and found nothing. The trees were so thick that it seemed like dusk was falling, yet it was only 4:30 in the afternoon. The heat, even in the shade of the woods, was crushing. Despair set in and we had to give up. Let’s go back to the hotel and regroup was my thought.
We went by the Garrett’s to tell them of the defeat and called it a day. Maybe we can try again some time when we have more time and energy. We really wanted to find the payload if only to see what clues the video would yield. We had found the SPOT locator with some remnant pieces and of course the mysterious location of the G1 phone in the Garrett’s back yard. Yeager was somewhere in between, it had to be.
The lost payload was supposed to be within 30 to 50 feet of the blue dot, which was my position in the woods, along the Flint River
A week later we tried again with our search. This time, we had better lat/long info from the APRS unit to work with. Since I discovered from Paul that conversion was not necessary, we realized that we were looking in the wrong place the weekend before. We’re only talking about 300 feet or so, but in those thick woods, 300 feet made all the difference. Paul was sure that the 33 14.15 by 84 26.03 was in fact where the APRS unit was. If we found it, we would probably find the rest of the payload.
So once again, Kerry and I hiked in to the rugged Georgia woods. This time we came armed with tools to cut through the walls of brush that hindered us last time. However, the heat wave that had grown to historic levels was a real problem. We had plenty of water but the heat was overwhelming. We began fairly early in the day with our search. After only about an hour or so, we reached the exact lat/long pair and looked for the wayward APRS unit and payload. Nothing. Not one shred of evidence as to where it could be. We sat down along the banks of the Flint River to get a drink of our water and I remarked that it “should be right here!”. We were standing right where the coordinates said it should be. Anyone who knows Geocaching knows how hard it can be to find a hidden cache whose only clue is usually a lat/long pairing.
We searched for about 3 hours and had to give up yet again due to the dangerous heat that was smothering us. The forest was just too thick. If the payload had in fact landed in a tree, we would never see it. I told Kerry that maybe after the winter sets in and a good freeze comes, that we can come back a third and final time to see if the canopy opens up enough to let us look in the tree tops. We agreed on that plan for sometime in December and left the woods in utter defeat.
Time marched on. The hurricane season heated up and we had a small chance to launch HURRB during Isaac but decided against it due to the eye of Isaac being rather clouded over and parked over the swamps of Louisiana. If the Georgia woods was difficult to recover a payload, I was certainly not taking my chances with large reptiles and other creatures that nightmares are made of.
October ended with the historic landfall of Sandy and I kept busy with that event well in to November. Kerry and then began to plan our last attempt to search for Yeager. We settled on the weekend of December 15th. It could not get here soon enough.
After many hours of pouring over data, maps and talking about a strategy to find the payload, the day finally arrived to put it all to the test. I drove to Newnan, Georgia, not far from where we needed to look, last Saturday. Kerry drove up from Houston. We had a nice dinner and planned out our attack for Sunday.
I had contacted the Garretts to let them know we wanted to look one more time. We thought about coming in from the west along the last known “flight path” to see if we stumbled across the payload between their house and the Flint River. They had no problem with us using their house as a starting point. We hardly slept Saturday night knowing that we had a good chance of finding the lost payload the next day.
Sunday morning was chilly but not too cold. The sky was overcast and I thought that this was of benefit to us. I figured the bright orange tape that covered the bottom of the payload would stand out better if the sun were not bright, washing everything out.
We arrived at the Garrett’s house around 9:30 in the morning. We could immediately see a difference in the woods. The trees were all bare of their leaves. You could literally see through the forest now and up in to the tree tops. This was a good sign.
The yellow line represents the possible landing location of Yeager, not very large but difficult in the deep woods
Kerry and I hiked in from the west and made our way to where we thought the payload may have landed, not far at all from the coordinates that the APRS had given back in June. Unfortunately, its batteries had run out long ago so we had only the recorded data to work with. We searched along a peninsula, part of a feature in the river called an “ox bow” with relative ease. No luck. There was no sign of the payload and we were sure of it. I suggested we go to the east side, right back to the coordinates again, and start fresh from there.
We hiked out within 30 minutes with a very light rain beginning to fall. This time there were no ticks, no snakes and few spiders to battle. It was so much better even though we were still empty handed.
We stopped in to talk with Justin about our plans of searching the east side again and on we went.
After a quick drive over to a dirt road that ran along the woods, we were ready. The rain picked up now to become a little aggravating but nothing we could not handle. It was better than ground temps of 110 back in June!
The third attempt to locate the missing payload was much easier due to the trees being much less covered in foliage
The hike up a logging road was incredible. The tall trees lined the road like walls. There was not anyone else out there. We saw no animals, not even many birds. It was still and quiet. Only the chilled rain drops broke the air with their pitter-patter on the decaying leaves that carpeted the logging road.
Then, we reached the point where we had to turn in to the dense woods and head west to the river. Kerry cut through using his machete’ and on we went. Even though the leaves had in fact fallen, the forest was still so dense that it became noticeably darker the further in we trekked. Still, not another soul was heard from or seen, save for the random shot-gun fire we could hear far in the distance.
I used my iPhone for GPS navigation and was trying to get us to the exact coordinates of the APRS unit. We stood there back in June but to no avail. For some reason, maybe the cloud cover, maybe the thick forest, but my phone was not working like it should. My position, a blue dot on the Google Maps, would drift even when I was stopped. This caused us to get somewhat lost. We were about 200 feet from where we needed to be, maybe more than that. The day was getting shorter with each passing second and we needed to get over to the river and plan our search strategy from there.
Both of us stopped and looked at our compasses and GPS devices. Mine finally settled down enough to point me west – towards the river. Kerry made it clear that we had to know precisely where we were before we moved. I paused and checked one more time. “West!” I said. “We need to head west and we’ll hit the river”.
I spotted the orange underside of the cooler about 200 to 300 feet ahead of me - it stood out against the rest of the dormant trees
I looked ahead and then it happened. As if to almost call out my name, I saw it. Through the woods, probably 200 feet away, I spotted the bright orange against an otherwise dull brown and gray backdrop of dormant trees and thicket. I told Kerry that I think I have found it. I pointed my walking stick like the barrel of a sniper’s rifle towards the object, barely visible but there none the less. He saw it too. We both pushed ahead, Kerry cutting a path through briars, saplings and other brush to make a bee-line to the orange object. I checked the GPS on my iPhone and sure enough we were headed for the exact coordinates of where the APRS reported its position back in June.
“This has to be it!” I yelled out. “What else would be out here that is bright orange and in that location?”
After six almost six months, we finally found the payload almost competely intact
After another ten minutes of hacking our way through the woods, we reached the edge of the Flint River and an active tributary that veered off towards the northeast. At that moment, two grown men acted like little kids on Christmas Day upon realizing that the present of their dreams had been delivered by Santa. We found it. Yeager was about 20 feet up in some nasty, thick trees and vines almost completely intact. We were thrilled beyond belief and relieved at the same time. The APRS unit was almost dead on. Yeager was right where it should have been. In fact, we looked at that very spot in late June but could not see it due to the choking green vines, leaves and other growth that covered it entirely. My logic of waiting until December paid off.
Kerry hopped across the tributary, climbed up the bank on the other side and proceeded to cut Yeager down out of the tree canopy. It took about 30 minutes of some serious hacking away at the grip of the forest but it finally relented and gave Yeager up. He collected all of the parts, some of which came falling down in pieces like a pinata as he poked and prodded the cooler from below. Everything was there. All three GoPro cams, the APRS unit with its steel wire antenna still attached. We had succeeded after nearly six months of waiting.
The walk out of those woods was exhilarating. As if to protest our triumph, Nature threw one last curve-ball our way as the rain picked up to quite steady. We knew the Flint River would rise some after this rain and that had we not found Yeager just then, we may never have been able to reach it. The area has been in near drought conditions for several years and the fairly low river was about to swell, even if only a few feet, with abundant rain then and more to come later.
We reached Kerry’s truck and headed back to the Garrett’s house to tell them of the news. It was an exciting moment for us all. They were fascinated by the whole experience and were visibly happy for our success. I gave their 11 year old son one of the GoPro cams to use as his own. All three were perfectly preserved despite being exposed to the elements for almost 180 days. It was the least I could do for them considering the fact that we would not have known where to begin looking had Justin not found the G1 found and turned it on. Everything happened because of that one piece of insanely good luck.
A look at what the GoPro cam "saw" with the CNN mic and mic flag displayed in front of the payload
Kerry and I went back to the hotel in Newnan and plugged in my laptop via HDMI cable to the widescreen TV in the room. Each 32 GB chip recorded almost 5 hours of video in stunning high definition. We watched each camera to finally see what happened and why things went so wrong back on launch day at the end of June.
To the best of our knowledge and from what we can gather from the video, the payload began to rock back and forth once it reached 50,000 feet and higher. Perhaps stronger than anticipated upper level winds were pushing on it, causing it to swing like a pendulum. With each successive push from the wind, the payload swung higher, eventually achieving a brief period of being weightless, like a child in a swing that is pushed to its limit. Then, the payload which weighed in excess of six pounds, would fall with gravity’s pull. At the same time, the giant helium-filled balloon is pulling in the opposite direction, trying to ascend. This went on for several minutes until there was so much give in the payload that it may have actually swung end over end at least once. Below is a video clip, slowed down to 12% of normal speed, that shows the rocking and subsequent break up of the payload.
After one swing too many, the payload jerked against the balloon just hard enough to rip loose the wooden support dowels used to attach the balloon to the payload. This is clearly seen on the video. The balloon then takes off, continuing to climb to burst altitude of around 100,000 feet. With the SPOT locator still attached, the balloon, the parachute, the wooden dowels and the SPOT sail away in to the dark sky above.
A frame grab from the GoPro video captured via "Yeager" - it clearly shows the break up of the payload due to the opposing forces of the payload swinging in strong upper level winds
After a moment of turmoil, the cooler, mostly intact, begins its free fall from 66,000 feet. This is when something amazing took place. The G1 phone, which was zip-tied to one of the dowels inside the cooler, breaks free now that the dowels are torn away. It escapes the cooler and skips across the thin atmosphere like a stone skimming the surface of a lake. From there, it falls nearly 12 miles where it lands in the Garrett’s back yard….fully functional. The screen was not even cracked. The jolt did manage to turn the phone off and this is why when Justin powered it back on in his garage that it sent a signal to Paul in Nevada. It is hard to believe but the HTC G1 fell from 12 miles with only minor damage but still completely operational. The slide out keyboard was a little twisted but otherwise, the phone was not damaged.
Frame grab from the GoPro video showing the balloon after it tore away from the payload. You can also clearly see the G1 cellphone as it sails out of the cooler
As for the rest of the equipment? The three GoPro cams all survived their plummet as did the APRS unit. This brings me to my conclusion as to why our finding of the payload was so important.
Part of a frame grab from the GoPro cam showing the forest that "Yeager" eventually landed in along with tthe Garrett house
One day, we will launch the HURRB payload in to the eye of a hurricane. It will be equipped with some of the best state-of-the-art video and GPS recording equipment on the planet. We will succeed in getting the payload up in to the eye of a hurricane, even if it takes years for the right one to come along.
Knowing that the equipment can not only handle the disaster that took place but that it can also be reliable in telling us where it landed is of paramount importance to our project. This was more than just about two guys who did not want to give up and needed an excuse to go in to the woods on a chilly, rainy December day. This was about proving that the science and technology work. That when the day comes that HURRB makes it out of the top of the eye of hurricane-X, that we know that when it lands again hours later, we will have a solid chance of finding it. Then we will get to witness something that no human has even seen before, not from these angles. Flying up the inside of the most powerful storm on Earth is a powerful motivator for us to make darn sure we can find the payload when the time comes. The fact that we finally found the CNN Yeager payload gives me hope that our HURRB project will one day make history.
This is why I say that, even in the face of failure, there is opportunity for success. We will learn from what went wrong and will utilize that knowledge as we move forward with the HURRB project. Then perhaps next hurricane season we will set HURRB free to embark on one of the coolest science projects ever attempted. I can’t wait to see how it turns out….
Have a blessed Christmas with your family and friends. Stay safe when traveling and I’ll have more here in the New Year.
Here is a time compressed video showing the launch up until just about when the payload began to break up. Questions about anything you read here? Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The latest computer model guidance regarding tropical storm Debby has not helped to paint a clearer picture of where the storm, forecast to be a hurricane, will eventually make landfall. In fact, this could be one of the more complicated storms to deal with in quite some time.
Currently, Debby is experiencing some shear which means the upper level winds are blowing across the top of the storm from a certain direction rather than fanning out in all directions. The shear is keeping the storm from being able to align itself vertically and the deepest convection is displaced well away from the center of circulation. This shear is forecast to relax but as mentioned in the latest NHC discussion, it is not a guarantee, so Debby may have some intensity issues over the next few days. It is important to note that intensity forecasting is where the least amount of skill lies and significant changes up or down are possible. The latest forecast maintains the notion that Debby will become a hurricane as it turns west across the warm Gulf of Mexico.
The track forecast is turning out to be quite difficult. What was once a fairly straight forward forecast that Debby would turn west under a developing ridge of high pressure has turned in to a potential huge change coming up. The NHC mentions the ECMWF model which has shown Debby moving west and even south of west towards Texas for the last several days now has the storm making landfall in Louisiana in about three days. As I mentioned, this is a big change from previous runs and we’ll have to see what happens with each subsequent run. In other words, is this the beginning of a trend of just a temporary “goof” by the model and it will get back on its “west” idea soon. We’ll have to wait and see. Track forecasting is sometimes quite easy, this time, it looks to be just opposite.
HPC 3 Day Precip Forecast
Let’s talk about rain fall. Taking a look at the HPC’s precip forecast for the next three days, we can plainly see that Debby has a tremendous amount of moisture to dump along its path. The Florida peninsula through the central Gulf Coast could receive several inches of rain as Debby moves quite slowly, allowing the rain fall totals to pile up. This is not to be taken lightly. Fresh water flooding from excessive rains generated by tropical cyclones is a leading killer. Often times flooded roads are accessed by people who think that they can navigate the waters. This is a dangerous idea and I urge people to be mindful of the potential flooding impact from the rain. I would like to point out that you can use weather.gov for a wealth of information regarding your local conditions. Just type in your ZIP Code and the landing page will likely contain all sorts of locally based watch/warning info, hurricane local statements and more. This info is for your area, not a national broad brush forecast. Remember: weather.gov
I am currently in Georgia after wrapping up a project I had with CNN to launch a weather balloon and its payload to high altitude yesterday morning. The prep and launch were spectacular, I cannot wait to show you the video of that. The ascent went very well and we were able to track the payload using APRS. I will post a separate blog about this project later tomorrow, complete with some video of the launch. I’ll also talk about what went wrong and why we were not able to recover a majority of the payload after the balloon burst.
Once I return home from GA later today, I’ll begin preparing equipment for a trip to the Gulf Coast to provide on-scene coverage and info as Debby passes by or perhaps makes a direct impact on the region. I’ll lay out my plans tomorrow as a lot will hinge on what the forecast track is and how strong Debby gets. Meanwhile, everyone along the Gulf Coast should keep close tabs on the latest forecast info from the NHC and your local NWS. I’ll have another post here tonight with frequent updates on Twitter.