Monday, September 13, 2010

Launch #2: Ups and Downs

Before anyone panics over the title of this post - the "down" does not refer to a payload falling out of the sky (thank goodness!). Nonetheless, there is plenty of drama from the past few days to share.

As I had hoped at the end of the previous post, the weather was cooperative and CNES planned a launch of payload #2 (carrying the CU ozone instrument and University of Wyoming particle counter) for the morning of Saturday 11 September. It was still a bit windy as the crew was setting up and inflating the balloon, but the forecast had called for the winds to die off by late morning. Unfortunately, that forecast did not hold up and the crew had to take some unusual measures on the launch pad - for example, tying the launch table (which is on wheels) to their passenger van to keep it from rolling across the ice in the wind. Below are a couple of pictures from this launch attempt. Sadly, just before launch, a very large wind gust knocked the balloon onto the ground and the director aborted the launch. They could not be sure that the balloon had not been damaged by hitting the ground. Better safe than sorry!
The wind blimp (know by the French as "Le poisson" - the fish).
It's very windy when the tails are straight out and the line makes a sharp angle to the surface.
Balloon blowing in the wind - it took four big guys to hold the table in place.
Fortunately, the winds calmed to almost nothing in the afternoon, allowing for a picture-perfect launch!

Wheeling the payload and control module out for launch.
Both are covered in solar panels to provide power to the instrumentation.

Payload 2 took off smoothly and rose to an altitude of 17 km (about 10 mi) in a couple of hours. It was in a pretty fast wind, moving toward the east at about 50 mph. After performing flawlessly for almost 24 hours, we suddenly stopped getting data from the instruments. Based on the amount of power being consumed, we knew the instruments were running, but no data was being transmitted back. No one could figure out what had gone wrong and the 10 hours' time difference between here and Toulouse (the home of CNES) made debugging the problem very challenging. We debated the wisdom of launching another payload without knowing what had happened to #2 and left for dinner yesterday feeling pretty down. However, during dinner, some in France worked their magic and re-established communications - we checked for data several times yesterday evening and again early this morning. Happily payload #2 seems to be back on line... and payload #3 took off about 2 pm today (Tues 14 Sept).

Above is a map of the path of balloon #2 since its launch. Forecasts suggest
that it will head back in toward the continent soon.

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