June 26th, 2012
09:24 AM ET

Weather balloon mystery: What went wrong?

Editor's note: Today's Light Years guest blogger, Mark Sudduth of hurricanetrack.com, joined a CNN project to launch a video-equipped weather balloon aimed at reaching the upper atmosphere and the edge of space. As it turned out, the mission posed many challenges. Here's Sudduth's account of what went right - and what went wrong.

The idea is simple: Put a payload in to the very edge of space via helium balloon, track it with advanced GPS technology and recover the payload after the balloon bursts at its prescribed altitude. Sounds like an exciting idea, right? Trust me, it is.

I should know because my team at HurricaneTrack.com has been working on developing just such a payload to deploy via weather balloon in to the eye of a hurricane.

How would we even get to the eye of a hurricane, you ask? That's our job.

I lead a small group of people who work hard to study the effects of hurricanes at landfall. We send back live video, pictures, data and tweets during the worst hurricanes that nature can dish out. We've been in more than 20 of them since 1995. We know hurricanes at landfall and thought it would be really cool to see the inside of one via weather balloon. All we needed to do was add a few GoPro HD cameras, the right GPS tracking equipment and then wait patiently for the right hurricane to come along.

We tested our payload with a 1,200-gram weather balloon May 24 from a private landing strip near Buffalo, Texas.

The payload was made out of a $2.28 Styrofoam cooler. It provided the safety for the GPS tracking equipment, which included a G1 Android phone and a SPOT locator, which is used by mountain climbers to help rescuers find them during emergencies.

We utilized lightweight aluminum cross beams that pierced the cooler to mount the four GoPro cams to, each facing a different direction. The finished product looked pretty cool.

It would be hoisted to the high atmosphere by the giant weather balloon filled with more than 200 cubic feet of helium.

Everything went about as well as could be expected. Despite high winds and a failed initial launch because of an insufficient amount of helium, we pulled it off.

The payload, named HURR-B, went up at an average of 1,100 feet per minute. It reached an estimated 94,000 feet before bursting because of the extreme low pressure of the upper atmosphere. It then fell back to earth with its parachute slowing the descent to around 15 to 20 mph. We located it using the G1 phone and the SPOT locator and retrieved everything within two hours after touchdown. Success was the word of the day. The footage was great, the GPS loggers were perfect, and we were just about ready to launch it for real inside the eye of America's next land falling hurricane.

The prep

About two weeks ago I got a call from a CNN producer Chris Erickson asking me to advise his team on how to do something similar for a project he had with CNN International Newsource. Little did I know, this project would not go as smoothly as the previous one.


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Filed under: News • Science Education


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