The package, launched from a soccer field by the Annapolis Royal Space Agency June 8 at about 10:25 a.m., reached an altitude of almost 30 kilometres before the balloon it was attached to burst and the box drifted back down on a small parachute.
It hit the Atlantic Ocean about 20 kilometres south of Peggy’s Cove at 3:31 p.m. A miscalculation of the amount of helium in the balloon is being blamed by the agency.
The Annapolis West Education Centre students were able to track the flight with help from the Annapolis Valley Amateur Radio Club who put a transmitter and antenna in the package.
From tracking data it was almost immediately obvious that the ascent rate of the balloon was too slow, giving jet stream winds more time to send the large white orb a lot farther east than computer-generated projections had predicted. At one point it was zooming along at 109 kilometres per hour.
The balloon popped just east of Lunenburg above Blue Rocks instead of just west of New Germany. It drifted another 25 or 30 kilometres as it fell the 29,761 metres to the Atlantic.
Student Abigail Bonnington went through a similar experience last year when the space agency’s package went missing for several weeks when the tracking beacon went to sleep. They fixed that problem this year only to be plagued by the helium deficiency.
“At first there was great confusion as to why the package was ascending so slowly, which was extremely frustrating,” said Bonnington. “Once we realized our mistake and it became apparent that it would hit the ocean, I was very discouraged -- all the hard work we'd put into it. Still, I'm hopeful for a retrieval.”
While the radio signal is no longer working, the piece of equipment that malfunctioned last year may be their salvation this time. It’s called a SpotGen and transmits coordinates of its location.
“The plan now is to see what happens when we get our next GPS reading,” said teacher Derick Smith that evening. “If the package comes on shore we will rush out to get it. Unfortunately, our current predictor is showing that the package is probably on its way to Europe.”
Retrieval of the Styrofoam box is important because it contains a GPS data logger coded by student Erich Gennette. It collected data along the way – such as altitude, temperature, speed, and location. Plus there are three GoPro cameras that recoded video on the flight.
“I’m a little worried that we’re not going to find it, but I’m confident we’ll get it eventually,” said student Griffin Batt. “A little stressed because a lot of work’s gone into that and I don’t want to lose this package because we planned on re-launching the same package with a different balloon, but I’m still pretty confident that we will find it and get the footage. But it might be a week or a little while longer.”
If the package does drift across the Atlantic, it isn’t the end of the world. For one thing, there is a large label on the box that identifies the ARSA and has return information. The box is well sealed and is made of a dense Styrofoam.
Smith is travelling to Scotland the first week of July and Jeff Hafting, a parent helper with ARSA, is going to be in the UK until the end of June.
“The SpotGen will continue to put out a signal for the next few months,” said Smith.
He doesn’t see the errant balloon as a failure.
“As always with this kind of project, the lessons you learn are tough but it will make us stronger in the long run,” he said. “If you are not failing then you’re not trying hard enough. These lessons keep us humble but we still want to keep pushing what we do.”
He said the space agency only has a one-day window to launch again this school year so most likely the next launch will be in the fall.
“I think the saying goes ‘the third times a charm,’” he said.