Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Great Wide Somewhere

Yesterday I got to go on a field trip for school, and it turned out to be an amazingly great adventure! I still plan to do some blogging about my Boston adventure, but the lab adventure is fresh in my mind so we are going with that one. I'll add some photos at the end of the post.

On Monday I got invited to join the recovery team since they needed two people with ham radio licenses and had only one (KB1RAD at your services). Tuesday morning I left my house at 5:30am in order to meet up with the team, pack up the cars, and hit the road by 6:30. The launch team was delayed with their departure by an hour, due to some equipment failure. So the six of us on the recovery team headed out to Conway and had time for a nice breakfast. Our discussion eventually landed upon the fact that we would be sitting around for several hours before they even launched, so that is when I started playing 20 Questions, which actually was more like Infinite Questions. Then we heard that the launch team's main computer was broken and their backup computer was only capable of tracking and receiving data from one of the two balloons that they planned to launch. So the new plan involved sending three of the recovery team guys to Mt Washington to track and receive data from the balloons. In the meantime I got to hang out with the other two guys in Conway, playing tourister, visiting museums, drinking lemonade.. you know.

So we finally get a call saying they are about to launch. Then they launch and everything is looking good. In the meantime, they had Kristina drive another computer to the airport so that they could track both balloons from the launch site. So all in all things are looking good. The only problem is that there was too much interference at the top of Mt Washington due to all the radio towers, so that team had to quickly rush down the mountain, because it was important for them to track the balloons during the descent so that we would be able to locate and recover them. Now is when things finally started to pick up.

The other half of the recovery team was tracking the balloons as they were driving, so when they came driving by we just pulled out and started following them. Eventually they got the last GPS position for each payload, one at a fairly high altitude and one at a lower altitude. Since they had a better idea of where the lower altitude one was, we headed toward that, and once we got near we were lucky enough to receive one more transmission so we had the GPS coordinates of where it was. It turned out to be less than half a mile from the road, and when we drove up we could see it, two orange spots (one the payload, the other the parachute) in the distance. The balloon did a fine job of landing in a farm where they grow sod, so basically it was in the middle of the biggest lawn ever. Very easy to get to, and very easy to find. So we cut apart the payloads and balloon and parachute (sidenote: none of the guys had a knife on them, but luckily they had a girl along with a pink pocket knife and they were all thankful for that) and packed it away. At this point it was starting to get later in the day and we didn't want to run out of sunlight before we located the other payload.

For the other payload we could not hear the ELT (emergency locator trasmitting) on our radios, and the last GPS point was near a lake, so we suspected it might be in the lake and not functioning, so we headed that way (don't worry we had a kayak along). However, once we got closer, we started to pick up the ELT, and after driving around awhile and trying the direction antenna several times (mostly unsuccessful) we got another GPS position, so once again we had a mostly exact location. At this point it was nearly sunset, so we took a road that got us to 0.6 miles from the payload. It was very buggy and pretty thick brush, so we put on long sleeves, pants, and tons of bug spray and headed in. It turned out we were hiking through a swamp. Soon enough, most of the 6 of us were quite wet (don't worry, my hiking boots were great and kept me dry, since I never stepped in water deeper than my ankle!). It took a long time to hike the short distance in, but once we got to within the uncertainty of the handheld GPS, we brought out the directional antenna, and that time it did actually serve its purpose. Let me just explain here what the directional antenna is: a PVC pipe, with three strips of tape measure of various lengths sticking off of it, hooked up to a small handheld radio receiver. Now imagine me walking around with this thing, pointing it in various directions, listening for my balloon payload. Pretty much it is the nerdiest image of "science" one could come up with. So, there I stand, in the middle of the swamp, being eaten by mosquitos (through my clothes, and two applications of bugspray), waving this antenna around. Luckily it worked and we got the general direction and "fanned" out to the best of our abilities in the swamp. Tim managed to find it up a tree, and by the time I traversed the 20 feet to get to them they pretty much had the tree down (note to self: buy a hatchet). At this point the daylight was fading pretty quickly, so we packed away the payloads, parachute, and balloon, got out our headlamps and headed back toward the cars. We decided that due to the fading light we would take the direct path, which meant walking through the swamp without hesitation. I still managed to have dry feet by the time we got to the car, but we were all quite lucky we didn't fall down due to the thick brush and slippery footing.

All in all it was a most awesome adventure! I wish I could do things like this more often, especially since I never felt like I was holding the group back (which I was worried about), and I managed to be a helpful contributor to the goals.

The recovery team, about to go separate ways.

At the train station in Conway.

Blue train at the round house.

Old railcar.

Model train museum.

The men trying to figure out where our payloads could be. Shortly after this a woman drove by (remember this is on very back roads in Maine) and said to the guys in a mocking voice, "Are you gentlemen lost?" but was quickly corrected and then impressed by our project.

Phil frolicking in the field.

The guys approaching the payload.

A cute cemetery in the backwoods of Maine.

These two photos were taken by Tim, showing the payload stuck in a tree in the swamp in the fading daylight.