8:16 AM EDT, 5:16 AM PDT: Today is the launch day, and it looks like the team has gotten things started (it's 8:07 AM here, but 5:07 AM at the launch site). Unfortunately it looks the public view page for the SPOT units isn't working at the moment, but I'll try to keep you in the loop via edits to this blog post, and the ham radio links at KD7UCE-11 and KE7BQV-11 should be up soon. The launch site sits at roughly 4,700', and the team camped at it last night - the first SPOT tracking data of the morning just came on-line about 5:07 local time at the launch site, so things are starting to happen.
9:52 EDT, 6:52 PDT: LAUNCH! Balloon #2, carrying an SLR camera payload, FLL Team 90's payload, the LEGO Mindstorms Team's payload, Gypsy, Lil' Joe, and the "NXT" communications payload just launched from the Nevada desert! Everything looks good at launch, although conditions have gotten slightly windier... but it's going up! Next launch in perhaps 30 minutes or so.
10:41 EDT, 7:41 PDT: LAUNCH of Balloon #1, carrying LUXPAK, Brix-Catcher, Peeps-in-Space, a ride-along student payload, the National Instruments video camera payload, Reel-E, and the "Energizer" communications payload. the team has immediately departed for parts NE, as the first balloon has already reached more than 72,000' and is well downrange. The SPOT transmitters on the first balloon have cut off as designed at 40,000'; they should resume transmitting when they drop below that, Lil' Joe first (planned cut-down at 80,000' or so) and later the main balloon payloads. The first balloon can be tracked using the ham link in the above post, while the 2nd balloon has not yet come within line-of-sight of a repeater tower (but should soon).
10:54 EDT, 7:54 PDT: Lil' Joe has been commanded to be cut free from balloon #2 at an altitude of slightly above 80,000'. If the program is functioning as intended, the freefall may be as long as 80 seconds, but Lil' Joe will set it based on the time aloft. I'm not sure what the ground underneath looks like yet, I'll have to check. Balloon #1 has started reporting in via ham radio as well, already above 21,000'.
11:14 EDT, 8:14 PDT: Balloon #2 now over 99,000' in altitude, approaching expected maximums. Balloon #1 is over 40,000' and ascending. All SPOT transmitters now silenced, as expected by altitude. The next SPOT transmitter message would likely be Lil' Joe, although the timeframe is very uncertain.
11:17 EDT, 8:17 PDT: SPOT contact from Lil' Joe timestamped 8:15:50 AM. This means the SPOT has continued functioning during the descent, but since there is no altitude information there is no way of knowing if the parachute has deployed. This is as planned (or hoped for, take your pick... Can You Tell I'm Nervous?!?)
11:34 EDT, 8:34 PDT: At a timestamp of 8:25:13, the Lil' Joe SPOT transmitter sent another location update, the same location update as the one at 8:15:50 AM. This means that Lil' Joe is below 40,000' and not moving... in other words, on the ground and with a working SPOT transmitter. It seems that the free-fall payload has made it safely to the ground! Balloon #2 (the first launched) has popped and is on it's way down (I'll look up the peak height in a minute), and Balloon #1 is still going up. According to Eric, they passed within a couple miles of each other as #2 was coming down & #1 was going up, so there is at least a small chance that one payload may have photographed the other, which it would seem like is another first.
11:56 EDT, 8:56 PDT: the last report from KE7BQV was over 30 minutes ago, from an elevation of 17,000' on its way down. This is expected, as the transmitter drops below the line of sight to ham repeater stations. The implication is that Balloon #2 (the first one launched) is now on the ground, and the ground teams are heading out to retrieve it using the last known GPS position. Balloon #1 (KD7UCE) reports an altitude of almost 82,000'. Lil's Joe's SPOT coordinates show it in a flat area below 4,000', so it should be relatively easy to retrieve.
12:29 EDT, 9:29 PDT: Both Lil' Joe & the first balloon (KE7BQV) are now down, actually fairly close to each other. They're SPOT transmitters have continued to send back data that shows both payloads stationary. The second balloon (KD7UCE) has not reported in via the ham GPS system in more than 40 minutes, but it recently send back two locations via its SPOT transmitter, showing it is still in the air and moving. The elevation isn't known (the SPOT system does not transmit this), but if the SPOT unit is reporting it should be below 40,000', so it may be on its way down.
1:05 EDT, 10:05 PDT: Just got a sat-phone call from Eric - Lil' Joe has been retrieved! Well, sort of... it was located just 2000' off of a road (or what could loosely be called a road in that area), but it appears the parachute tangled with the tailfin assembly at some time (I did a quick calculation & found a higher-than-expected descent rate based on the cut-down & on-ground times, so I knew it had been a fast descent). The impact was hard enough to eject the inner mechanism straight through the bottom of the payload shell (inch+ thick blue stryofoam)... yet the SPOT was working. And so was the NXT! I'm not sure what data will be on it or what other damage it might have suffered, but it seems that it can survive a... rather high-speed... impact into the desert floor when released from 80,000' (yes, I want pictures as well)! Clearly some redesign is needed for the next time (like cutting free the tailfin altogether), but it works, and the NXT survived! The team is heading north to where the SPOT unit shows the next payload (Balloon #2), and Balloon #1 has recently reported in with two consecutive SPOT readings that show it stationary as well, so at this point all three payload strings are on the ground and reporting their location! The ground team may have some weather to cope with (and there may be clouds in a lot of the pictures), but it looks like a very good mission at this point.
2:20 EDT, 11:20 PDT: The ground team has now begin hiking up into the hills where Balloon #2 landed. I can actually see this "as it happens", because of the rather amazing survival of the Lil' Joe SPOT unit; the team is carrying this unit with them, and so it shows up on the map along with the other payload locations. Balloon #2 is located only a couple miles from where Lil' Joe landed, only about a mile from the road (although I've been advised that calling this a "road" is extremely generous) but apparently up some hills or terrain.
2:45 EDT, 11:45 PDT: The ground team has reached the second payload to be retrieved, Balloon #2, in some more interesting terrain as shown on the map ("canyoneering" was a phrased tossed about). They report all is well except for one payload that is missing from the payload string (I'll try to get details later, it was not a great connection, & I'm not sure which payload it was). I do know that Gypsy and the pipe framework supporting it survived, so on top of LEGO surviving incredible falls from 80,000', it can also support an active, moving payload, with the only connection being normal ABS (no glue!) exposed to -60° C or lower temperatures. Very impressive! More details when I get them.
3:59 EDT, 12:59 PDT: The ground team is now hiking out to the third and final payload, Balloon #1, and should reach it shortly.
4:22 EDT, 1:22 PDT: In what I'm certain is a long day for the ground team, they have retrieved the last of the payloads: all three returned missions (Lil' Joe, Balloon #2, & Balloon #1) have landed and been recovered safely. The missing payload mentioned before seems to have been the LEGO Mindstorms team payload (no idea what happened to it at this point - Eric reports it simple "wasn't on the line" when they found the payload string). He also had some numbers to give. According to the GPS units riding in the balloon payloads, Balloon #2 (the first launched) reached a peak altitude of 99,730', while Balloon #1 (the second launched) reached just a hair lower at 99,566' - a wonderful altitude for both payload strings! Gypsy was still running when recovered (in fact, it wouldn't shut off for some reason, and had to have the batteries removed) and had noted on the LCD that it had detected free-fall and switched over to the descent imaging script. The SLR payload took 18,888 pictures (yes, I got that right) all in raw format (16 Gb of data!), and the NI video payload evidently got the entire mission, hopefully including the balloon burst. The team is now returning to home base, and will start downloading data as soon as possible. I think it's appropriate at this time to declare the first HALE mission a wonderful success (although there's certainly some unexplained issues to address still, with several different payloads).
Personally I want to give a huge thanks to Eric Wang, Jeffrey LaCombe, and their entire team for putting in an amazing amount of work on this, from start to absolute finish (& they're still not done - drive safe, ground team!), as well as the sponsors for HALE, including LEGO, Energizer, National Instruments, The University of Nevada-Reno, and the Nevada Space Grant. Thanks for an amazing opportunity... and now to dig through the data!
(very happy near-space mission specialist)