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RandomRace Team on Global Space Balloon Challenge

19.04.2014; Dmitry Bulavinov. Photos: Alexander Kutischev, Ilya Schwarz, Dmitry Bulavinov.
This story in Russian here; also you can view/download PDF version of this story (10 Mb).

Firstly, we would like to thank Global Space Balloon Challenge organizers for providing us with the opportunity to unite the worldwide efforts of stratosphere flying fans in their event. It was very interesting to study someone else's experience and meet, yet not outright, our hobby fellows.

Secondly, let me say a couple words about our RandomRace team. Being a very important target, stratosphere launches are not the primary one for us. We are mostly involved in organizing and holding balloon search public competitions. We launch balloons with GPS-trackers transmitting their coordinates to a monitoring server. After reaching a certain height the balloons burst and trackers land in random positions which we call checkpoints. Competitors look for the landed trackers with the help of their GPS navigators and return them to organizers at an agreed finishpoint. We've got a monitoring server map that helps teams follow the trackers as well as see other teams. This creates some extra intrigue while searching. The team that finds most checkpoints becomes the winner. The first competition took place on 26th October 2013 (results) and the next will be on 31st May 2014.

RandomRace Team, August 2013
RandomRace Team, August 2013
RandomRace teamleader Dmitry Bulavinov with children
RandomRace teamleader Dmitry Bulavinov with children
The first RandomRace competition, October 2013 (results)
The first RandomRace competition, October 2013

Coming back to our Global Space Balloon Challenge launch, I should notice that the contest time (18-21 April) was coincidentally the same as summer bicycle season opening in our northern Russian city of Saint-Petersburg, with a dedicated bike ride on 19th April.

Below is the summary of the equipment we have used.

The container was made of a plastic bottle. The bottle bottom was cut off and a thermal insulating insert made of soft polyethylene foam was placed inside. Almost all the equipment including a video camera was placed in the insulation. The camera was recording through the bottle. The cut bottle edge was then squeezed, covered with a sealant, curled some times and fixed with a light yet robust aluminum alloy pressing device. The shell is airproof and adiabatic.

Container sealing with a pressing device
Container sealing with a pressing device
Container made of plastic bottle
Container made of plastic bottle

Pepsi-Cola is not our sponsor — these bottles turned out the most transparent. :)

Fabricating the thermal insulation insert
Fabricating the thermal insulation insert
The camera in the container
The camera in the container

Self-made descent chutes provide a vertical speed of 4-5 m/s (~1000 ft/min). In this case we have used a self-made 12-section parachute 120 cm (4 ft) in diameter rated for 1 kg (2.5 pounds) load.

Sewing a parachute
Sewing a parachute

Sewing a parachute
Parachute cords are joined with a heat shrink tube
Parachute cords are joined with a heat shrink tube
Parachute test with a cuddly toy of a relevant weight
Parachute test with a cuddly toy of a relevant weight

To our regret, we for this launch had nothing better than a very old fairly dried up and badly stretching meteorological balloon produced in 1987 and weighting 850 grams (2 pounds). It was clear that our probe would not reach 30 km (100 000 ft) altitude (though our earlier launches ended even higher), but the reality did not justify even our modest expectations.

Packaged old balloons
Packaged old balloons
Neck with a production date (shell length a bit more than two meters)
Neck with a production date

GSM coverage in the vicinity of our city is not good everywhere and commercially available GPS-trackers do not always provide a required level of received signal due to low capacity of their GSM antennas. Moreover, tall trees in the woods interfere with GPS signals making things even worse. We have developed and assembled a GPS tracker free from these drawbacks. Onboard the launched balloons we place a 433 MHz transmitter to facilitate a local search at a landing site with a self-made beam antenna receiver.

Thus, we planned to launch:

  1. Airtight adiabatic container;
  2. Industrial GPS-tracker;
  3. Self-made GPS-tracker;
  4. Self-made 433 MHz transmitter;
  5. Barometric altimeter circuit board from a GPS navigator;
  6. Wing video camera fitted with two 18650 accumulators;
  7. Cobra video camera with three 18650 accumulators (they were in the container and the camera was fixed on an outside bar to record a container in flight);
  8. Bicycle club banner;
  9. Parachute.

The total weight of the descent load was 1200 g (3 pounds) without the balloon weight.

Wing video camera
Wing video camera
Cobra video camera (with our balloon flight forecast for the specified date, time and site)
Cobra video camera
Self-made 433 MHz transmitter
Self-made 433 MHz transmitter

On the launch day the RandomRace team occupied one of the well-known backyards mentioned in literary works of the famous Russian writer Dostoevsky. :)

Unfortunately, the first balloon burst, came off its neck and flew away bleeding off helium on its way to The State Hermitage museum. But we had spare balloons and helium. Actually, the remaining helium was just enough for the second balloon with the minimum lift margin. We also attached a special sticker dedicated to our participation in the Global Space Balloon Challenge contest to the container.

Inflating balloon
The camera is now recording!
The camera is now recording!
Test weighing
Test weighing

On the appointed time we came to the square (the probe attracted a great interest of local people and city guests). When the bike ride was finished, the cyclist club chairman gave a welcoming speech and then the balloon started its ascent accompanied by the screaming of the crowd of thousands of bikers.

Heading for the launch site
Heading for the launch site

Heading for the launch site
RandomRace Team at the Dvortsovaya Square
RandomRace Team at the Dvortsovaya Square
Bike ride finish
Bike ride finish
Get ready, get set, …
Get ready, get set, …
Go!
Go!

Go!

Unfortunately, the shabby balloon burst after reaching its doleful maximum of 1800 m (6000 ft) altitude and fell down just near the city 12 km (7 miles) away.

Our balloon over the Dvortsovaya Square
Our balloon over the Dvortsovaya Square
The Dvortsovaya Square and bikers
The Dvortsovaya Square and bikers
Vasilievsky island
Vasilievsky island
Neva river
Neva river
Landing site
Landing site
City map and flight track
City map and flight track

The container landed on the tall tree at the outskirts of Saint-Petersburg. Fortunately, our team includes an experienced arborist and tree climber Alexander Kutischev, and he is able to reach almost anything almost everywhere.

Descent module with the burst balloon on a tall tree
Descent module with the burst balloon on a tall tree
RandomRace arborist Alexander Kutischev
RandomRace arborist Alexander Kutischev
Container is OK
Container is OK

Though our balloon did not reach stratosphere, we succeeded in most of what had been planned: welcomed bike riders and, ultimately, let our old dream come true — to launch a balloon from the center of our beloved city of Saint-Petersburg. The equipment worked properly — we have got a recording from both video cameras. The short-term plan is a night launch within a famous white nights season in Saint-Petersburg.

The balloon was launched by:

Photos:

Video:

Translation:

Video

(will apper soon...)

Additional information
Update from 11.06.2014

We received a real paper letter with stickers and tabs with regards to «Global Space Balloon Challenge» from the USA.

Letter with stickers and tabs
Update from 24.06.2014
Results of the «Global Space Balloon Challenge»

The organizers of the Challenge had promised to publish the results a month after it started, but announced them in the end of July. They were announcing the results one per day to keep everyone in suspense. To recap, there were four nominations in the challenge with a significant prize for each of the winners. You can see them below:

We participated in two nominations — Best Photograph and Best Design (the participation in the other would be pointless), but we didn't win in any of them. Nevertheless it was nice to become on the winners in the newly created Best Stories nomination.

The emphasis was made on the technical difficulty of the launch in the city as well as on the popularization of our start in terms of aeronautics:

In addition, this year their GSBC launch coincided with a large bicycling event in the center of St. Petersburg. They decided to pull off both a very technically challenging launch (from a city!) as well as involve the public through the bicycling event, a great publicity event to show people how awesome these launches can be. Successful in the launch, they then had to retrieve the fallen payload from a tree! Luckily, one of their members is an accomplished tree climber, and the payload was saved. The GSBC organizers hope that this collaborative effort inspires other teams to reach out to bring others to the world of ballooning!

If, as the organizers claim, the challenge will be held on a regular basis, we will participate in it with our creative ideas. :)