Team recovers weather balloon after help from storm

Published 11:10 pm Monday, July 1, 2013

A weather balloon launched at Troy Parks and Recreation Wednesday recorded this image before falling back to Earth.

A weather balloon launched at Troy Parks and Recreation Wednesday recorded this image before falling back to Earth.

What goes up, must come down.

But that doesn’t mean you can always find it when it does come down.

The Troy Parks and Recreation Department launched a near space balloon as part of a children’s summer camp on Wednesday. But after hours of searching later that afternoon, the balloon launch team began to lose hope of retrieving a capsule that housed a GPS tracker, a data recorder and two high definition video cameras inside.

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“We thought we had probably lost it,” said Dan Smith, director of parks and recreation. “But searching for the capsule took us on one of the greatest adventures I’ve been on in a long time.”

The search crew had no luck on Wednesday and Thursday the GPS signal was silent.

“On Friday, at about 2:30 in the afternoon, a storm front came through. It got dark and the wind was blowing strong,” Smith recalled.

Conley Freeman with Troy Cable called Smith and shared the news that the GPS signal had become activated again and was showing the capsule was near Brantley.

“The way the GPS device works is, if it is moving then it is recording data and sending it back out – much like a car GPS,” Smith explained. “When the storm came through, the winds picked up and the parachute hanging in the tree began to sway, activating the GPS.”

Although the area the capsule was found didn’t usually show coverage for GPS devices, the heavy cloud cover allowed for the weak signal to be received.

Dan Smith, Alex McLendon, Michael McLendon, Doug McLendon and Chris McLendon printed out maps and took off to recover the capsule on Friday afternoon.

A man who lived near where the GPS signal was coming from told the crew that a nearby logging road was probably the best way to make it to the capsule.

“We started walking down the logging road and tracking on our smartphones,” Smith said. “All of a sudden, the dots matched where we were standing.”

Smith said Chris McLendon spotted the capsule at the top of a tree just off the logging road. The man who had given the team directions earlier happened to be a pulp wooder, Smith said, and was able to cut the tree down with his chainsaw.

“The kids were so excited. We were able to get really high and get great footage,” Smith shared. “But we were not able to get all the way to the apex.”

A recording device took measure of temperatures inside and outside the capsule and Smith said the lowest temperature recorded was -61 degrees.

“That will absolutely zap a battery’s life and we think that’s what happened,” Smith said of why the camera battery died before returning to Earth.

Smith said the Parks and Recreation Department hopes to launch another balloon in September and some school classes and organizations have already contacted him to see if they can be a part of the next launch. Smith said he welcomes groups to contact him and arrange to be present at the next launch.

“There is no question this was a success for us,” Smith said.

K&W Plastics, Troy Cable, Ideal Graphics, and the Pike County Cooperative Extension Service all contributed to acquiring and launching the near space balloon.