CORVALLIS - They had to claw their way through rugged mountain terrain, endure drenching rain, have a close encounter with what appeared to be a bear - and they failed on their first five trips. But students and faculty members from several Oregon universities finally recovered a high altitude balloon satellite that was released from the Oregon State Fair on Sept. 4.
Recovering the balloon and its instrument package was part of a project organized by the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium based at Oregon State University. It may help set the stage for a variety of similar projects with Oregon high schools to help boost student interest in science and aerospace activities, officials say.
Hopefully, those projects will be less of an ordeal.
"We proved we can recover these balloons and instruments even in very difficult terrain, and that's important to the project concept," said Jack Higginbotham, an OSU professor and director of the Oregon Space Grant program. "We were all on pins and needles to see how this would turn out. But now everyone is very excited and we're looking forward to doing more of these launches in the future."
The balloon which was sent up from the fairgrounds in Salem had climbed to 19,000 feet, although most of the balloons of this type can go up to 100,000 feet, Higginbotham said. This one was designed to go a short distance, pop, float back to Earth on a parachute and help prove the feasibility of this type of launch and recovery project. It carried global positioning equipment, an altimeter, camera and other materials.
The long term goal of this type of project, Higginbotham said, is to do more outreach programs with Oregon high schools, in which college students and high school students and teachers collaborate on launches, learn a little bit about aerospace issues and hopefully increase their interest in related science fields.
"With things like a balloon recovery, we'd like to see these high school students spend a few hours with college students, share the excitement of the hunt, learn about new technologies and get a feel for how much fun and interest there is in many fields of science, especially aerospace," Higginbotham said. "These are the types of things that can really inspire a person to pursue a rewarding career."
OSU collaborated on this project with participants from the Oregon Institute of Technology and Southern Oregon University, and it was an OIT team that eventually recovered the balloon. But not without a few struggles first.
The first group to head out on the day of the launch, composed of students from all three universities, tracked the balloon via radio beacons into a remote part of the Oregon Cascade Range east of Salem but had to give up as darkness fell. The team returned the next day and got within a couple hundred yards of the downed balloon through thick brush before being stopped by a steep ravine.
Recovery attempts continued during the next two weeks, and the searchers eventually turned to experts at a Klamath Falls climbing shop to help tackle the steep, almost impassable terrain. One group got lost, finally found their way out of the woods, camped for the night in a drenching rain and gave up.
Finally, an OIT student shared information about these travails with an OIT mathematician, Jim Ballard. Ballard and his wife used all the available maps, radio beacons, and GPS support to get near the balloon, in the process spooking what he believes was a bear out of the tangled brush. Ballard finally spotted the balloon almost buried in heavy vegetation, and brought it out of the forest.
"We know now that we can put these balloons into the upper atmosphere and recover them from almost anywhere," Higginbotham said. "It's a real credit to the efforts of everyone who worked on this project, and we feel this is going to be a great educational tool for both our consortium member colleges and Oregon high school students."
The Oregon Space Grant Consortium has 18 members across Oregon, and develops educational and community outreach opportunities to help develop a strong science, math and technology education base from elementary through university levels.
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.
Jack Higginbotham, 541-737-2414