Fall 2009 Issue

Up in the Air

Superlaunch 2009

By Bill Brown, WB8ELK

Well over a dozen amateur radio high-altitude balloon groups from across the country and Canada descended upon Topeka, Kansas this past July to attend the 9th annual Great Plains Superlaunch (GPSL).

Paul Verhage, KD4STH, of Nearsys (<www.nearsys.com>) hosted the event and provided us with excellent conference and launch facilities at the Kaw Area Technical School in Topeka. This was a three-day event that started out with a great tour of the Garmin GPS headquarters in Olathe, Kansas. We got to see the testing and engineering areas (I’d love to have a fraction of their test equipment!) and had the opportunity to meet with some of the design engineers who helped answer our questions about using their GPS units for high-altitude ballooning.

On Friday, a conference was held where we were presented with fascinating talks from a variety of balloon groups. Paul Verhage demonstrated his environmental test chamber made out of commonly found parts and an inexpensive vacuum pump. It can simulate the near-vacuum and extreme-cold temperatures found in a Near Space environment (see photo 1). Billy Graham, N5QEM, of Northwest Technical Institute wowed us with a demonstration of his powerful potato-gun payload retrieval system that can shoot a tennis ball (with fishing line attached) nearly across the length of a football field (photo 2).

During breaks between the conference talks, there was a great opportunity to view the many innovative payload designs on the display tables (photo 3). If you are contemplating starting your own Near Space balloon program, the GPSL event is a great place to learn what others are doing. You can really jumpstart your efforts by attending.

We Have Liftoff

On Saturday everyone grabbed a spot in the parking lot of the school and started to inflate their balloons and prepare their payload experiments for flight. Three waves of balloons were launched for a total of 11 balloons in the air at one time (photos 4 and 5). They were ARBONET, EOSS, KØNMS, KØNMS/ NSV, Nearsys, NSERT, NSTAR, NTI, ORB, Univ of Minn, and WB8ELK). The weather was perfect with no wind, allowing us to leisurely hang onto the payloads with the balloons standing still overhead. I streamed live internet video of the mass liftoff via my Verizon-enabled Netbook so those who couldn’t make it to Kansas could see this amazing spectacle at home. After all the balloons were launched, the chase was on.

The Chase

The challenge with chasing 11 balloons at once is to figure out which one you want to track first. I rode shotgun with Mark Garrett, KA9SZX, as we bounced along over the gravel roads of the Kansas farmland. I discovered that Mark had a few holes in the floorboards as the car filled up with Kansas dust that quickly made us look like Pillsbury doughboys. As we descended upon the sleepy and unsuspecting town of Garnett, Kansas, I could tell that the residents were keeping a wary eye on us as a dozen vehicles covered with strange antenna arrays filled up their small town. I’m certain that as we all stared up into the sky they must have suspected they were about to be invaded by UFOs (and in fact they were—Unidentified Floating Objects). It was so clear that we could see several balloons 100,000 feet above us with the naked eye.

Photo 1. Paul Verhage, KD4STH, demonstrates his Near Space environmental test chamber.
(Photos courtesy of  the author)

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