Ted lands in Elstead

Back in May 2011, before even my first launch, I was at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington DC and spotted one of these cute little potential astronauts:

Back then I was still building my first and very conventional payload, but I bought it anyway for a possible future mission. A few days ago I was chatting with Aussie HABber Mark Jessop who wanted to test his cutdown board in flight, and we discussed various options for doing that on my forthcoming flight. Normally these are used to release a payload from a balloon (for example to stop the payload travelling too far if the balloon starts to float), but we came up with the idea of using it to drop “Space Ted” from the main payload. So we planned a flight with a camera payload at the top, then Mark’s cutdown board, and then Space Ted with his own parachute. With the decision made, I arranged flight permission and ordered the gas cylinder for the flight. I then, slightly reluctantly, took a scalpel to ted so that I could fit a tracker inside. Here he is reporting for duty:

The young or squeamish should skip the next photo, a grizzly sight which shows the tracker being inserted into Ted via a surgical incision along his back. I also inserted an aerial down his right leg, with the ground plane along both arms. The single AA cell went into his left arm, with wires brought out through the cuff so I could connect the battery before launch, or test with external power before.

With the tracker tested to check it still worked, it was time to sew up Ted. I didn’t refill him fully as was a tad overweight for an astronaut. In particular I didn’t put the bag of beads back in (I think they were there to weigh his bum down so he sat down better). The result was a new slimline Ted weighing only 150 grams (50 grams less than before, even though the tracker had been added). Now Ted was made of “The Right Stuff(ing)”.

For the cutdown, Mark supplied his Osiris board which we mounted in a small box with a Kodak camcorder. Here you see the Osiris board and cells on the left; and cells on the right for the camcorder (which goes in the middle):

The Osiris board has a cutdown output that delivers a high current into a piece of nichrome (heater) wire to cut through a nylon cord that in our case holds up Ted and his parachute. The nichrome goes under the payload box (normally it would be above of course):

This flight was the first outing of my Shogun as a chase vehicle. It’s old and thirsty but has plenty of space for all the gear I’ve collected for launching and chasing balloons. I built a car PC for it, and hooked that up to a touchscreen monitor which is on the left of the windscreen in the picture below, held on by a clamp and adapter sold to photographers. Below is a Yupiteru scanner for receiving the balloon telemetry. I also have a Yaesu transceiver which will go into the DIN slot below the regular radio. Finally there’s my mobile phone and sat nav. For now the wires are just loose and tie-wrapped, but they’ll all be hidden away soon. The PC itself goes in the back of the car, with some batteries, GPS receiver and 3G/wifi access point.

The launch itself was delayed due to our typical summer weather, and then by the fact that we had 3 payloads to get ready. The complete flight train was made up of a 1200g Hwoyee ballon at the top, then the main chute followed by the Cloud camera payload (held by my wife, Julie):

This is the Osiris cutdown payload:

and Mark is holding Ted and his parachute:

Next we inflated and tied off the balloon:

We launched from the village green next to the filling area. At first the wind was too strong but, as usual, there was a break and the balloon floated high enough to launch. Within a few seconds though the entire train disappeared into the low cloud:

We then packed up the launch kit, and went back to the house to unpack the things we didn’t need (such as the gas cylinder), before heading down south on the A34. The predicted route for the balloon had it landing north-east of Midhurst, and the quickest route there was down to Winchester on the A34, then east on some smaller roads. Once in the car, Mark checked the telemetry again and saw that Ted’s GPS wasn’t working. He also saw that Osiris was receiving a lot of noise, making it impossible for it to hear messages that Mark was sending to it. So these things meant that we wouldn’t be able to release Ted, and even if we did we’d not know where he landed.

Meanwhile, the balloon was heading more east and less south than expected as it gained height. The cloud cover was almost 100% over this part of England at the time, but nevertheless it captured some pretty good shots:

We stopped a couple of times en route, to wait to see where the flight was going compared to the expected path. At high altitudes it crept north so we had to go further north too. Once it burst we new roughly where it would land so made our way there, to the village of Elstead. Mark had software running to show the predicted landing spot derived from the position, descent rate and wind data, and as that settled we drove to the predicted point. However as soon as we did that point moved, so we drove back to near the centre of the village. Eventually the prediction stopped moving about so much and we drove to the east of the village where it seemed to be heading. We parked up in a layby roughly where we thought it would land, both of us concerned that instead of a nice easy field it was about to land in a populated area. Mark watched the balloon position on his map, then looked up at the sky and shouted “Visual!” as he saw the payloads appear out of the low cloud! Here’s what the payloads saw as they descended:

and this is what I saw (note all the power and phone lines!), with a mixture of “Oh this is cool” but mainly “Oh shit what’s it going to land on?”

I saw Ted land in a garden, then Cloud land in a tree, and finally the main chute floated down just in front of me. I didn’t know then, but the Osiris payload recorded this shot as it was about to land, looking up at the Cloud payload and main chute:

I rushed up to see exactly where Ted was, and was greeted with this surreal sight:

Ted is of course very soft, and the Osiris payload was also made of soft materials, so no damage was done. I knocked on the door and explained to the owner what events had just happened in and above his front garden. He was happy enough and here he is captured by the camcorder in the Osiris box:

We then found the Cloud payload near the top of a small tree in the next garden. The owners helped, bringing out a pole and then a ladder. The pole didn’t quite do the job so I climbed up the ladder and grabbed the payload. With that pulled down Mark rescued Ted and Osiris, cutting the cords so we could pull them in.

The main chute was still dangling directly over the footpath, with people walking past oblivious to what had just happened. This is my favourite shot of the day:

After releasing the chute we turned our attention to the balloon remains, which were looped round the cord holding it to an overhead cable. A few minutes of thought and untwisting released it, so now everything was recovered. An excellent if scary end to the day!

Finally, here’s the flight path and our route in the car:

and more photos on Flickr

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