The South Texas Balloon Launch Team released an unmanned, helium-filled balloon with a high-altitude GPS tracking system and VHF amateur radio transmitter Saturday afternoon in an attempt to establish a world record for distance.

Launched at 3:15 p.m. from No Label Brewery in Katy, the balloon was expected to stay afloat for over a week, and local amateur radio “ham” operators were hoping it would reach Nanjing, China, where the balloon was made.

However, the last signal transmitted occurred 50 seconds after midnight Sunday when the balloon was at an altitude of 45,763 feet above the Gulf of Mexico – 48.7 miles south bearing 200° from Lake Charles.

“Frozen,” said Andy MacAllister, the mastermind behind the project. “Either the batteries or the electronics stopped working due to the extremely low temperature. The payload was subject to lower temperatures than ever before – for too long at time.”

While the crew has no idea if the balloon is still afloat in the jet stream, amateur radio operator A.C. Spraggins said there was no descent data transmitted.

“If the balloon had popped, we would still see data coming in on the way down. It takes a few minutes to fall 45,000 feet,” Spraggins said. “Our other flights had parachutes and time coming down might take 30 or more minutes, plenty of data to track its fall – i.e. in 2010, our team picked up the package 90 seconds after it hit the ground.”

Still, the team said it will continue to monitor the site – “just in case.”

“The mission was a limited success, but we learned a lot, which we’ll use on the next attempt, assuming there is one,” Spraggins said.


The History

The team became interested in the project after attending a seminar in 1990 with Ohio resident Bill Brown, who had launched a balloon carrying a amateur radio transmitter in 1987.

“Just watching other people do it was not good enough,” MacAllister said. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to do it yourself?’”

Since then, the team has had 28 missions in 21 years, launching everything from simple voice transmitters and TV systems to telemetry systems that track temperatures, as well as other systems that sends data on gamma rays and detect change of light.

The first launch was made from Huntsville, and the payload landed in the trees in Conroe. After attempts from other locations “away from airports and other obstacles,” the launch was moved to Wharton. This is the first year the launch was held in Katy.

“A.C. came to our first beer tasting, and we knew he was involved with this,” said Jennifer Royo at No Label Brewery.

“When he first told us he was going to launch a balloon, we said, ‘Okay,’” Brian Royo said. “When he started sending us pictures and information, we realized what a big deal this was.”


The Equipment

The balloon carried a small package equipped with a high-altitude GPS retriever, a little transmitter and a flight controller.

Thomas Krahn, who built the payload package, said the GPS uses satellites to determine the position, altitude and time of the balloon, while the transmitter sends the information back to the station.

“The flight controller does a lot of things,” he said. “It decodes the GPS and determines if it’s close enough to an international space station. If it is, then it switches frequency.

“It also automatically shuts off so it doesn’t consume too much battery power,” Krahn said. “After four minutes, it turns itself on again to do the same thing before becoming silent again.”

With the help of “super computing powers” from the National Weather Bureau and NASA, the balloon launch team is hoping the balloon will make it to China.

“We tell them what we want to do, and they give us their best predictions,” Spraggins said. “The balloon’s speed and direction will be totally dependent on the wind.”


Launch Day

Despite months of preparation, not everything went as smoothly as planned.

The team was going to launch the balloon on the other side of the silos, but heavy winds caused the site to be moved to the south side.

And in preparing for the launch, the team overfilled the balloon and had to spend some time letting some of the helium out.

“There’s a range, and we can’t put too much gas in it, because if there’s too much helium in it, it will burst when it gets to a certain altitude,” NASA engineer John Maca said. “We want to put enough life in it so it stops rising and begin floating.”

Once the balloon was afloat, the team was expecting it to go eastbound so it would get caught in the jet stream sending over Louisiana. But the wind picked up a little, carrying the balloon southbound, as the crowd watched it float out of sight.

“There was a moment that it started coming down, and there were all these cars coming, and everybody was kind of like, ‘Ahhh!’” Jennifer Royo said. “But it went back up again, and it was cool to watch it fly away.

“It was pretty amazing,” she said. “We have never seen anything like that before.


Future Plans

Although the signal dropped off the tracking system Sunday morning, the team will continue to monitor it in case it shows back up.

Those who want to view the balloon’s progress or monitor if it shows back up on the tracking system can go online to and fill in the “track callsign” field with “kt5tk-11.”

As for future plans, the team said it may launch another mission for distance in the near future.

“Andy had told me that if the flight got as far east as Berlin, Mississippi, we would have enough data to ensure greater success next time,” Spraggins said. “Since we didn’t get that far, we’ll have to reanalyze what data we do have, along with any weather data after the fact that NASA or NOAA can give us.”

Until that happens, the team is moving forward with plans for its next mission for altitude, which will probably take place in August in Wharton.


Source: - Tracy Dang, Times Managing Editor

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