Friday, August 3, 2018

The day dawned with a layer of fog blanketing the Schnur Lake area but by 7:30am the fog had lifted and we could see beautiful blue skies.  It looked like a perfect day for a launch and comparison with the TCCON, the EM-27s and the OCO-2 satellite – a great way to cap off the road trip.

For starters, though, we had some complications to deal with.  We learned yesterday that, due to a misunderstanding between the cabin owners and rental agency, our checkout date was this morning instead of tomorrow morning….. sigh.  With helium tanks in the Yukon, there was no way all of our equipment, our luggage and ourselves could also fit in.  So after Tim prepped the AirCores, he and Sonja drove the analyzer rack and as much spare equipment and luggage as possible over to the WLEF tower and stored everything inside the Carbon Cycle Group’s shipping container  lab.  Long story short, kind of inconvenient, but among the lesser inconveniences of the day as it turned out…

We drove about an hour northwest of Park Falls to our launch spot, picking up a fellow balloon launcher along the way who was vacationing in the area and wanted to join us just for sport.  We set up, with Sonja fretting more than normal:  this was the first time we were launching sans Jack (the communications and tracking expert) and this task had been handed off to Sonja.  Luckily, between Oklahoma and the first two Wisconsin launches, there had been a fair amount of training — and mostly things are fine when we launch — but there are a lot of small details to remember, aaaaand sometimes wacky things just happen.

But things seemed to be going well.  After a few little glitches, all the tracking equipment is working fine on the ground.  We’ve recruited Tori to help with the release of the balloon, and the skies are blue.  Oh wait…. the skies were blue.  (No really, you have to check out the video.)  We were mostly set up, skies were blue, and then we started filling the balloon.  Cue the clouds, which got darker and thicker in minutes. Because we were so concerned about which way the blustery winds were going to take the payload, no one really registered the change in sky cover. Tori pulled the ripcord and off the thing went with Colm having to sprint in a direction we weren’t expecting.

We quickly packed up and hustled off toward the WLEF tower to meet some tree climbers.  Prior to the trip, we had arranged to have tree climbers in Wisconsin “on retainer” and so far hadn’t needed their services.  Since today was our final launch of the road trip and we needed to start the drive back toward Colorado as soon as the work was done, we decided to have the tree climbers on hand for the chase: Robert Berg from Arborjack in Birchwood WI and Louise Levy, owner of Levy Tree Care in Duluth MN.

Unlike the previous Wisconsin launches, the payload seemed to be following the prediction fairly well.  And then, in something only vaguely hinted at in the forecast, the skies let loose and started dumping on us.  Thunder, lightning, heavy rain…. what?!  The TCCON crew texted to say they’d closed up shop.  When the balloon was around 75,000 feet, the iMet stopped working.  Shoot.  Some nervousness on Sonja’s part, but we still had the Iridium and the ADS-B transponder to help track the balloon…until the Iridium started sending strings of zeros instead of the relevant latitude, longitude and altitude.  Crap.  Thankfully, the ADS-B was still reporting, but at the tower we were only getting the lat/lon showing on the map and not the altitude (okay, the reality is we could have seen the altitude, but that was one of the details Sonja didn’t remember right at the time, so for the purposes of the story, we didn’t have altitude).  The Northwoods are not a hotbed of cellular coverage, so we drove back into the town of Park Falls to get an internet connection, which allowed us to see the altitude of the ADS-B on various flight tracking websites, and sat in the pouring rain waiting to get a final GPS position of the payload after landing…. which, by the look of the topo map, appeared to be in a forested wetland.  Oh, goody….

It could have been worse.  We followed a series of good dirt roads and by using the dog tracker found that we could get within about a third of a mile of the payload.  It was very densely wooded, but there was a small trail of sorts at the beginning we were able to follow.  This soon devolved into unstable, wetter ground, rotting trees and foot-grabbing sink holes.  (Muck boots would definitely have been the footwear of choice.)  Robert and Louise had it especially tough because they were carrying awkward tools and ropes.  We zigged and zagged our way towards the payload, quickly giving up on keeping our feet dry, and stopping frequently to scan the trees for a bright red parachute or the bright orange bags that hold the tracking devices.  While 0.3 miles doesn’t sound very far, it certainly felt like a long time before Colm called out, “Found it!”  Despite the tall trees, the AirCores were sitting neatly on the ground, though the rest of the flight string and the burst balloon were strung overhead through some trees.  We probably could have eventually gotten everything out of the trees without our arborists, but as they were there with tools, this made the extraction much easier.

Colm navigated a slightly longer, but higher and drier, path back to the road and then we zoomed back to the tower.  Tim got the analysis going while Colm and Sonja completely unloaded the car to do the careful Tetris repacking of everything and downloaded the data from the various payload pieces.

In the end, this final launch was kind of a bust.  Data files were sparse, and because of the heavy cloud cover, there was no comparison data from the TCCON, the EM-27s or the OCO-2 satellite. Did we mention that our shoes were soaked and muddy?  However, this whole adventure does make for a comical story and a memorable way to end the field project.  And in the end, Colm was able piece together the flight path with bits of data from each of our FOUR different trackers.  For those who are wondering, Jack later diagnosed the initial iMet problem as having come from a damaged connector. And the rest of the issues probably came from a lightning strike on the way down, which took out most of the GPS units on the payload all at the same time. So, this probably can be categorized as the aforementioned “sometimes wacky things just happen”.

Around 7:30pm, we hit the road, disappointed because we had missed all the Friday Night Fish Fry opportunities along our path (the locals stop eating dinner early around here!).  As the clock approached midnight, Sonja bailed out of the road trip in St Paul so she could fly to Chicago in the morning for a friend’s wedding.  Tim and Colm got a handful of hours of sleep and then blasted the 14 hours back through Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and, finally, Colorado on Saturday.  Phew.

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