Our first flight of the year was for the 2008 Central Plains Severe Weather Symposium in Lincoln. NSTAR has not flown from the symposium since 2004 due to weather problems and other circumstances in the intervening three years. We enjoy flying from the symposium, though, as we usually have a crowd of 250 or so to watch us launch.

The weather forecasts for the week leading up to the flight did not look very good for us. Southeast winds of around 20 mph were forecast for our launch time, which is more than we like to have. However, the launch site on the UNL campus was in a built-up area with several trees and buildings, so we headed for Lincoln that morning in the hopes that things would be good enough despite the wind.

Most of us arrived around 8:30am and we checked out the area. There was a nice open space to the north of the building where the symposium was held, good for a balloon launch. I walked around a bit looking for a quiet spot where we could fill the balloon as out of the wind as possible. The winds were not quite as bad as expected, but there weren’t many quiet places that were suitable. We picked a spot downwind of some trees which helped a little bit.

Setup began about 9:30, after we determined it wasn’t too windy to start. The balloon fill actually went much better than expected – it didn’t bounce around nearly as much as I thought it would given the winds. To minimize the amount of time between start of fill and launch, all the payloads were hooked together prior to the start of the balloon fill. I don’t really have a good idea why we weren’t doing this on a regular basis before, but we’ll make a point of doing it now. After a couple last-second checks of the payload, we launched at 0958 CDT (1458 UTC).

Our chase plan required us to depart as soon as possible after the launch, so we packed up and headed north through Lincoln. After a couple of missed turns, we finally got on I-80 and headed northeast to Omaha. We made a few simplex repeater contacts along the way, including Larry N0BKB who was leading another group of balloon chasers coming from the east. Both payloads were transmitting fine and things were looking quite well for us.

The end of Flight 08-A, south of Elliot, IA.  Photo by Lowell Abarr KB6SDI

Burst occurred at 92,296 feet at 1118 CDT (1618 UTC) while the balloon was a few miles west of Malvern, IA. After burst, the main payload’s packets became much weaker and more garbled, leading to fewer than one decoded packet in 3-4 minutes. At the time I suspected an antenna may have been torn off, so we switched to the backup beacon’s frequency. We chased east on Highway 92 from Council Bluffs to near Griswold, then headed south. Larry and his team were already in the vicinity, and Lowell KB6SDI was in position to get some excellent pictures of the touchdown at 1200 CDT (1700 UTC). Our chase team was about two minutes behind, so we were not able to see the landing.

The payloads landed just off the road inside a barbed-wire fence, but the backup beacon payload had actually rolled under the fence after landing. Recovery was a matter of grabbing that payload and pulling the whole string under the fence – we didn’t even have to climb over it. Even if we had to, there was a gate not far away. No power lines, no cows, no trees, as wide open as you could ask for a landing site. The chase teams headed for Griswold for a lunch at Dusty’s before returning home for the day.

This flight featured the first use of our Canon PowerShot A560 7.1 Mpixel camera. The camera can be scripted with the CHDK firmware, which lets you (among other things) program the camera to take pictures at regular intervals without having to ‘hack’ the camera’s shutter button or permanently modify the firmware. The camera can be returned to original functionality just by swapping out the SD card. Over 400 pictures were taken with excellent exposure and color quality – a great improvement over the Concord 4060AF previously used.

At this writing, we suspect the main payload’s antenna may have broken internally. This antenna has endured a lot of abuse as it has flown (and landed) for 20 flights or more. It will be swapped for another one prior to the next flight.

The picture below is from about 73,000 ft on ascent and shows the moon on the right side of the image a few degrees above the horizon.