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A Month after Space Flight, Balloon Returns to ESF

A month after they tethered a payload of information-gathering electronics to a high-altitude balloon and launched it into space, a class of ESF students has recovered the equipment—and the data it collected.

A curious hiker found the payload, with the electronics still safely ensconced in the students' homemade fiberglass housing, during an outing in a wooded area in Cuyler, New York.

"My friend and I went for a walk in the woods because we were bored," said Damion Graves, who found the package in a swampy area near Cuyler-Lincklaen Road, about 30 miles south-southeast of Syracuse.

Graves said the payload was hanging in a tree, looking somewhat like a strange bird. He decided to find out what it was. Through the ESF sticker on the fiberglass, and the ESF flag tied to the parachute, Graves connected with Dr. Giorgos Mountrakis, whose class had launched the balloon from the ESF Quad April 29. Mountrakis drove to Cuyler to claim the package.

"It was like seeing an old friend come back," Mountrakis said.

The balloon was launched by an engineering class that was participating in the Global Space Balloon Challenge, involving 295 teams in 17 countries. The goal was to use innovative design to develop balloons that can gather data in a manner that is less expensive than using satellites. The electronics payload contained a miniature computer, a panoramic camera, a GPS unit and a radio transmitter.

The package had landed in a "dead zone" that prevented radio signals from reaching a team of searching students. Then the radio's batteries died, and the only hope was that someone would find it. Mountrakis discovered that the video and still photos collected by the camera during its 2.5-hour flight were still intact so he could download them.

He estimates the balloon reached an altitude of 110,000 feet before it popped, sending the payload back to the ground. In the meantime, the wide-angle camera captured dramatic footage of the balloon soaring above the ESF campus and southeast with the wind.

"Our calculations show it probably reached 110,000 or 115,000 feet. So the flight went just as expected. We were able to get some really nice videos and images of the curvature of the earth," he said. "We will study the data in future semesters to see how much larger the balloon got at high altitude so we can study atmospheric pressure and the stress the balloon goes through. That should help with future launches."

Recent ESF graduate Mark Bailey, who worked as a teaching assistant in the class during his last semester at the college, said the balloon's month-long disappearance was a "heartbreaking end" to the project.

"Every Sunday, we all came in and worked; it was probably a six-hour day," said Bailey, who will head to Philadelphia in July to begin a job as a water resources coordinator with HDR, an engineering consulting firm.

"We did the launch the last day of classes and then we just never found the stuff," he said. "Now, everybody is super pumped and just happy that we didn't ruin 'ESF Goes to Space' for future generations."

Mountrakis took advantage of the opportunity for one more teaching moment when he sent a final email to the students who worked on the balloon during the spring semester. He did not tell them the payload had been recovered; he simply attached an image taken just after the launch, showing a group of students who were lying on the ground to form a gigantic E-S-F in the grass.

"We had taken photos during test launches but we didn't have the students spelling E-S-F in the grass in the test photos," he said. "That only happened during the final launch. I gave them an opportunity to do a little creative thinking and figure it out for themselves."