Sunday, July 19, 2009

Great Plains Super Launch 2009

Paul Verhage, KD4STH hosted the GPSL this year in Topeka, KS at the Kaw Area Technical School (KATS). In all, I believe that we had about 10 balloons launched on Saturday morning, and there were attendees from at least eight states plus a couple from Canada.

This was the first year that we were able to do a tour on Thursday prior to the main event, this year at Garmin. Unfortunately, there were no photos allowed during the tour, but it was cool nonetheless.

The group as a whole had about 45 minutes of interaction time with a couple of software engineers from Garmin to ask questions and get a better feel for the direction that the company was going. Afterward, they broke us into smaller groups and showed us the manufacturing (avionics) and R&D areas. We also got a short side-trip over to the G1000 flat-panel avionics support area for a hands-on demo.

Thursday evening was completed with a screening of the movie BLAST at the KATS conference center.

Friday was of course filled with short presentations from a number of the groups. I took a few photos from the event.

Here Paul was showing his high altitude chamber. Depending on the seal of the chamber (he has three different ones here), he can achieve a vacuum equivalent to 80k-100k feet.

Paul had a Van de Graff generator toy that causes a lite piece of foil (think Christmas tree tinsel) to levitate. I've got to find me one of these.

Bill Brown has been very active lately developing small and disposable tracking systems. Here he is showing one of his newest 6m designs.

Several anti-tree systems were shown and discussed for removing payloads from the top of a tree. As far as the coolness factor goes, this "potato gun" was near the top of the list for launching a tennis ball with a fishing line attached to the back side. This one was actually used on Michigan's payload Saturday morning.

It was decided to launch from the KATS parking lot, three blocks from the hotels. Groups started arriving by 6:30am, and the first batch lifted off about 7:40am.

The Northwest Technical Institute (NIT) had an impressive setup for transporting Helium in the back of a truck. The wood rack and cargo straps seemed to hold everything very secure.

Here the NIT and ORB groups are inflating their balloons.

A student from the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium preps her capsule before take off.

EOSS was well prepared and organized as usual. They now break into two teams - a balloon inflation team and a capsule preparation team. The payload is only attached to the balloon after all checks are in place.

Paul with Nearsys begins the prepping of his payload prior to inflating the balloon.

EOSS was the first group ready, and the first group to launch. The air was calm enough that only one group used lanyards at all. Everyone else stood their balloons up, and just released.

Here Paul is making the final preparations before releasing.

Seen here is NSTAR's flight (left) and two UTARC balloons (right) just after release.

I managed to get dubbed the "Launch Meister" after volunteering to do launch coordination with Forbes Field, which was only a few miles away. Even though I was chasing Paul's balloon (Nearys) which launched in the first group, we did not leave for about 30 minutes after the inital launch since I was responsible for clearing the other groups into the air. Then, I hadn't planned our escape route very well out of Topeka, and wound up doing some backtracking.

Crys and I made it to Garnett, KS less than 5 minutes after touchdown, using some new software that I had developed to track the balloons. All worked pretty well until we went to retrieve Paul's capsule.

We drove to the location on the edge of town where it had landed, and actually started getting new packets from the tracker. That was a good sign, except that now it showed the capsule in a different location. So we drove back into town. We were just coming up on the updated location, when we got another beacon from it, and what do you know but it was now in a differently location yet!

At this point, I was getting frustrated with Crys for leading me on a wild goose chase, while in my mind I was trying to figure out if the problem was with my tracking software, Crys's eyes, or Paul's GPS.

I finally gave up and went to help the Michigan group pull their payload out of a tree (we had spotted it from the road during all of these excursions), because at least we knew where that was, and it wasn't going to move on us.

It took about an hour or more to shoot a rope up through the tree. In the end, someone wound up crawling up the tree high enough to get a hold of the capsule and drag it down. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera down for this event.

All payloads were retrieved except for ARBONET, which the last I heard thought that they'd had a complete power-supply failure, and therefore was not transmitting any RF. On top of that, they felt that they had ascended at 500'/min, which put their predicted landing sites 20-40 miles further down range from the rest of the group.

Lunch was held at Pizza Hut in Garnett, which our large group quickly overwhelmed. They managed to get food out reasonably fast. Dinner on Saturday evening was back in Topeka at the Cracker Barrel, which could handle our group much better, although the ~50 of use still got spread out.

I did finally figure out the issue with tracking Paul's payload after touchdown during dinner Saturday night. Apparently, his capsule narrowly missed a tree and tell within 10 feet of the owner of a house. The owner picked up the payload, put it in the back of his pick-up, and then called Paul on his cell phone. For whatever reason (to be helpful maybe?), the guy then drove the payload into town and then back to the house where they finally met up with Paul.

Next year's GPSL location is still being discussed, but so far the Dallas/Palestine/Sulphur Springs, TX area is being heavily discussed. Watch the GPSL website for more updates.