Friday September 11, 2015

Lost weather balloon is found, along with incredible space images

The 'Grand Canyon Stratospheric Balloon Team' with their weather balloon.

The 'Grand Canyon Stratospheric Balloon Team' with their weather balloon. (Bryan Chan)

Listen 6:28

Two years ago, Bryan Chan and his friends launched a weather balloon into space. The modest aircraft was outfitted with a cellphone and GoPro camera. They wanted to see what kind of footage they could retrieve once the camera fell back to Earth. The only problem with their experiment was that they couldn't find the balloon. But now it's been found, along with some amazing footage. 

The lofty idea started when Chan's friend asked for help with his doctorate work. He was studying the use of fluid lensing.

"The idea behind this, with the weather balloon, was we would send some cameras up and take a picture of Earth using the atmosphere as some kind of lens," Chan tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Chan is an aerospace systems engineer. He was born in Toronto but has lived most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area. He explains that he and his friends had experimented with balloons before.

"We had dabbled in it, and he kind of recruited us to be the so-called, alleged, balloon experts."

Camera from lost weather balloon

Camera rig from the lost balloon. (Bryan Chan)


Chan, along with his friends Ved Chirayath, Ashish Goel, Tyler Reid and Paul Tarantino, formed the Grand Canyon Stratospheric Balloon Team. They figured out how to mount the cameras to the balloon and attached a phone which would allow them to track it through GPS. They hoped the balloon would climb to 100-thousand feet above Earth, but were unsure whether they would be able to track the phone at that height.

"We were extremely surprised," Chan explains.  "Somehow it had signal to send us the data of where it was but basically right around that 90-thousand mark, it just, everything, all communications, were lost."

He adds, "We really had no idea what happened to it, how far it went, where it landed of course. All these things were just really big question marks."

Flight path of lost weather balloon

(Bryan Chan)


But they remained hopeful. Chan explains that the balloon was also equipped with a parachute and that they had models to predict where it would land. But when they arrived at the calculated location, they found nothing.

"We ended up just circling around the desert like all day, all night, looking for this bright object on the ground," Chan recalls.

At that moment, the dream deflated.

"I think I had a little hope maybe the first month or so but I think it was easier for me to disconnect from it, instead of having this sort of low lying, agonizing pain constantly over me."

Two years passed, until finally, one of Chan's friends got a phone call.

Chan explains,"This mysterious call from his old phone number of two years ago...it's like this ghost call."

The call was from AT&T. An employee was hiking in Arizona and had discovered the phone and camera box under a parachute. The SIM card in the phone led them to Chan's friend.

At the time, Chan was off camping in New Zealand. But he remembers the moment he checked his email account.

"All of sudden I see this like, in caps...SPACE BALLOON = FOUND...and there's like twenty exclamation marks behind it!"

The Grand Canyon from found weather balloon

The 'money shot'. An image taken from above of the Grand Canyon. (Bryan Chan)


Finally Chan and his friends were reunited with their balloon. The camera footage they uncovered exceeded all of their expectations.

"We were blown away, absolutely blown away," Chan explains. "I was absolutely floored by the stuff we got."

Here is a video that features footage from the balloon's flight. It also includes a sequence of the Grand Canyon from around 98-thousand feet which Chan calls "the money shot."