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RandomRace Team at Global Space Balloon Challenge 2015

13.04.2015—24.04.2015; Dmitry Bulavinov. Photo by: Dmitry Bulavinov, Aks Shevchenko.
The same story is also available in Russian. Это же повествование доступно и на русском языке.


Global Space Balloon Challenge is the international stratosphere balloon launching contest. Teams from around the world launch their probes which is then summarized in various categories such as the highest altitude, the best photo, the best scientific experiment, etc. We have already taken part in the first contest in 2014 (the story). In spite of the quite posh launch site (the Palace Square at the very center of Saint-Peterburg), our launch may be considered unlucky as due to a quite aged shell the probe did not reach an altitude higher than 2 km and landed in fact within the city. Nevertheless, we have won the Best Stories category. It went without saying that the next time we would do our best... :)

The contest in 2015 was going on since 10 till 27 April (by the way, here is the promotional movie of this contest with our last year launch footage). We could repeat a launch from the Palace Square, but this would be a baloney and it was desirable to invent something new. This implied a start at a handsome site and a flight route planned over a good-looking terrain (from above), recording a video. We therefore wished to fly over Caucasus Mountains, confined between the sea and green plains, still fairly show-covered in April. For self-motivation to make a trip from Saint-Peterburg to Caucasus region, these plans were announced on our team’s page on the contest web-site, so that it would be uncomfortable to give up. :)

Well, we are making for Caucasus. There are south-west prevailing winds there, that is, blowing from south-west to north-east. Thus it made sense to start at a sea shore, for example, in Abkhazia, so that a balloon would fly over the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range (if possible, over the Mount Elbrus — the highest point of the Caucasus and the entire Europe). If everything will go just as planned, the journey may be a quite interesting one.

Jumping ahead, the expedition was excellent; the video was also not bad. It can be accessed at the bottom of this page, so that most impatient can scroll down.

Put off on a journey

On 13 April in the evening the RandomRace Team - Dmitry Bulavinov, Maria Komissarova, Aks Shevchenko and Dryoma (the dog), set out from Saint-Peterburg to Abkhazia. On 16 April in the evening we covered without any incidents a distance of 2500 km and arrived to Abkhazia. (Well, there was one: Dryoma had no documents and was not allowed to pass a state border between Russia and Abkhazia and we had to leave it at a dog hotel in Sochi.)

The start at the Aks’s garage
Старт из гаража Акса
Breakfast near Krasnodar
Завтрак под Краснодаром
The Old Gagra
Старая Гагра

We were put up by our friends at the Old Gagra and were waiting for favorable weather conditions for a successful launch. And these were completely disputable. We were not eager for creeping in the vicinity of Mt.Elbrus, though were fully equipped for a high mountain search operation (ropes, crampons, ice pitons, winter clothes, etc.). Apart from summer season, the weather at Caucasus in April is quite treacherous and avalanche-hazardous. Thus, we needed a strong high-altitude wind so that the balloon would fly over the Caucasus Mountains. But some days with a strong wind forecast were also rainy and cloudy, making recording an interesting video impossible. On the contrary, when weather forecast web-sites predicted a fair weather, there was a light wind and the balloon would at the best case land on Mt.Elbrus (that was unacceptable for us) or, at the worst, even not reach the mount.

On 16 and 17 April there was a light wind forecast and since 19 April and later on for one week – a strong wind, but with 100% cloud cover and rains. We decided to launch on 18 April - a rational compromise day with a stronger wind and yet not too sad weather forecast. For this reason, we had two days off spent on taking rest and sightseeing.

On 16 April we were walking in Gagra, yet quite deserted in spring, looking for potential launch sites.

The Gagripsh restaurant
Ресторан «Гагрипш»
The old aerial railway station
Станция старой канатной дороги
The park in the Old Gagra
Парк в Старой Гагре
The freight train at the Abaata station
Товарный состав на платформе «Абаата»
Auarash — the Abkhazian beer
Пиво по-абхазски — «ауараш»
The deserted beach
Пустынный пляж

On 17 April we went to Sukhumi and visited a central stadium with the round coordinates N43.00000, E41.00000 (for details about visits to such points see Degree Confluence Project). Then we took a trip to Mt.Mamdzyshkha, snow-covered above 1100 m.

The building with the flowering tree in Sukhumi
Дом и цветущее дерево в Сухуме
The entrance to the national stadium
Вход на республиканский стадион
The N43.00000, E41.00000 point
Точка N43.00000, E41.00000
Snow at 1100 m above see
Снег на высоте 1100 метров
The New Gagra in the evening
Новая Гагра вечером

The balloon launch

On 18 April we got up at 7:00 AM and on 7:30 AM were on a pier which had been chosen for launch. Apart from the last year, we had a new shell that should not fail.

Maria Komissarova and Aks Shevchenko
Маша Комиссарова и Акс Шевченко
Inflating the balloon
Надувание шара

We planned the following equipment for the launch:

  1. An airtight adiabatic container;
  2. Meitrack MT90 GPS/GSM-tracker;
  3. Xexun XT107 GPS/GSM-tracker;
  4. MT90 mini GPS/GSM-tracker;
  5. SPOT Gen3 satellite tracker;
  6. A self-made 433 MHz transmitter;
  7. Cobra videocamera with three 18650 batteries;
  8. A self-made pressure and temperature logger with MS5534 sensor;
  9. A dead load;
  10. A parachute.
The equipment to be launched
Запускаемое оборудование

The total descent weight (without the balloon weight of about 550 g) was about 900 g.

The total descent weight (without the balloon weight of about 550 g) was about 900 g. Let’s talk in more detail about the dead weight. As mentioned above, it was vitally important that the balloon would fly longer and farther away. This could be implemented in two ways: a) choose time with a strong wind (we did all we could in this respect), b) lower the balloon ascent rate, put off its burst and increase wind influence on the balloon.

To implement the option b) we attached to the balloon a 0.5l plastic bottle with brandy; this extra weight was too heavy for the balloon to lift it (the was a lack of its carrying capacity). Then we started to pour off brandy into another bottle until the floatability of the balloon were positive again. This extra weight allowed to reduce an ascent rate to just 1.4 m/s (as measured), while it usually was about 4-5 m/s.

Why have we decided to fill a bottle with brandy and not with water, or, for example, use instead any dead loads like metal nuts? With dead loads we could not be able to adjust a vertical speed so precisely, and with water... One would admit that it is much more interesting to look for a landed equipment with brandy, rather than with water. :) No wonder, that St. Bernard rescue dogs in the Alps had flasks with brandy and not with something else on their collars.

When all tests and adjustments were finished, we went to the very end of the pier protruding some 50 m into the sea and at 8:20 AM performed a launch. It has attracted a profound interest of fishermen and one of them even asked ‘Tie me to the balloon, I want to fly as well!’

On the way to the launch site
По пути к месту запуска
The RandomRace Team before launch
Команда «RandomRace» перед запуском
Go on!

Having launched the balloon, we started to monitor its flight on Internet. Contrary to GPS/GSM-trackers, that literally at once fly out of a GSM coverage area and stop to transmit coordinates, a satellite tracker transmits them within an entire flight, thus reducing a very nervous waiting for landing. (Unfortunately, it does not transmit anything above 17 km due to a GPS altitude limitation; one more disadvantage is that it transmits only coordinates without an altitude.)

The journey is under way

Waiting for the probe landing, we got our stuff together and left the hospitable Abkhazia. By that time, our balloon has already flown over the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, so we could definitely go back to Russia. We were glad to learn than the balloon has flown just over the Ritsa lake and very close to Mt.Elbrus, which allowed to hope for interesting shots from above.

We returned to Russia and found out that our probe had already landed (due to the dead weight, the flight lasted for four hours instead of usual three hours). It still did not reach the plains and landed in mountains about 2000 m above sea level (its coordinates were transmitted by both the satellite tracker and one of the GPS/GSM-trackers). We were quite depressed by this because the day before had found snow at 1100 m and that meant we would have to walk waist-deep in snow at 2000 m. But we had no other choice and went around the Caucasus Mountains via Maykop, Nevinnomyssk and Pyatigorsk to Kabardino-Balkariya and into the Baksan river valley (by the way, it strethes just to Mr.Elbrus). We spent two days to get to the parts where our balloon has been flowing just 4 hours.

The balloon flight chart (the track and the key points of this flight and our search operation in the main GPX-file, 2 Mb)
The balloon flight chart
The breakfast at the Great Stavropol channel shore
Завтрак на берегу Большого Ставропольского канала

Having arrived to Kabardino-Balkariya, we started to think of the best way to get to our probe. One way was out of Bedyk settlement on the Baksan river shore, and the other one was out of Kendelen settlement on the similarly-named river being a confluent of Baksan river. Distances from both settlements were about the same, but it was unclear how far we could drive a car and where should be a most rational start point of a hiking part of the search operation.

First we went to Kendelen. A road along the river past the settlement was excellent, but the shepherds we met in a canyon told that though we could leave the car and start hiking right from here, the route from Bedyk's side would be a shorter and simpler one. We have thus returned to Baksan and went to Bedyk.

The canyon of Kendelen (Gundelen) river
Ущелье реки Кёнделен (Гунделен)
The canyon of Kendelen (Gundelen) river
Ущелье реки Кёнделен (Гунделен)

We have driven through Bedyk, stopped for a night about 1 km above sea level and decided to set off for the equipment search next morning. The local we met (he worked as a watchman at a quarry, though was graduated from Saint-Peterburg State University of Economics) advised us the best route, showed the beginning of a pathway. He has also told about a driveway to those parts, but it was longer and bad. As our car is not supposed for mountain roads and we wanted to walk, there was a decision for a hiking trip. Another joyful news he had told was that there would probably be no snow in the mountains (the climate is different to that in Abkhazia and a show line in April is higher) and then we could make a round trip in one day and do not need to take a stuff for an overnight stop.

The supper near Bedyk settlement
Ужин за посёлком Бедык

Looking for the probe

On 20 April we got up early and set off in the mountains about 7:00 AM. There was a low cloud cover. We needed to climb about 1 km and, according to a map, there was a major climb at the beginning and then slightly sloping Alpine meadows between Mt.Egiuzleruchu (2269 m) and Dzhambash (1928 m), where our probe has landed.

Climbing along the slope with wild leek
Подъём по склону, поросшему черемшой
The light forest
White frost on vegetation
Изморозь на растениях
Low cloud cover
Низкая облачность

Once we have chosen the wrong way, gone along overgrown paths and finally found ourselves on a steep slope in a thick forest…

The overgrown path
Заросшая дорога
The origin of a river
Зарождающиеся речки

We scrambled through the wood (at near-zero walking speed) and reached open northern slopes of Mt. Egiuzleruchu. On 14 PM at exact coordinates we have found the probe there.

Foggy environment...
Bingo, the equipment is found! Dmitry Bulavinov and the dog Dryoma
Ура, оборудование найдено! Дмитрий Булавинов и собака Дрёма
Everything intact
Всё в целости и сохранности

After short break for a meal with some 'dead load' we went back. This time we followed a shorter and more rational route through Alpine meadows and by 18 PM reached the camp.

White frost on branches
Изморозь на ветках
The Aks's beard
Борода Акса
The path
The Bedyk settelement
Посёлок Бедык
Back to the car
Возвращение к машине

That day we walked 19 km and climbed 1 km (and then made the same descent).

The probe search map (the track and the key points of this flight and our search operation in the main GPX-file, 2 Mb)
The probe search map

Way back

Next day we left Caucasus and went back, planning to visit a couple of interesting locations. By the way, the weather got better.

Nice weather
Прекрасная погода
The breakfast: buckwheat porridge, Abkhazian cheese, wild leek
Завтрак: греча, абхазский сыр, черемша

The first location was in Kalmykia — in particular, the Ulan-Erge settlement. There at a so-called ‘point’ live the Kalmyks, the sheep breeders. We wanted to visit our friends, who were put up by the Kalmyks and were making a film about Kalmyk shepherds and a general life in savannah. We reached the ‘point’ at night and next morning went for a short walk around the blooming savannah.

Morning in Kalmykia
Утро в Калмыкии
The water vessel filled by a water-carrier
Колодец, наполняемый водовозом
The road in savannah
Степная дорога
The view of the ‘point’ from the hill
Вид с холма на «точку»
Dryoma and a tulip
Дрёма и тюльпан

Then we went to Elista to visit a krurul (a Kalmyk pagoda).

The relevant appeal (‘Protect forests from fire’)
Актуальный призыв
The khurul in Elista
Элистинский хурул
The Buddhist prayer drums
Буддийские молитвенные барабаны

In the evening we arrived at Volgograd and visited the Mamayev Hill museum.

The Motherland Calls statue and the moon
Статуя «Родина-мать зовёт!» и месяц
All Saints Church
Храм Всех Святых
The sunset

We stayed overnight past Volgograd and then went home nonstop co-driving. On 24 April in the morning we were back to Saint-Peterburg. Our journey was 6333 km long.

The final navigator reading
Финишные показания навигатора

As a matter of fact, that is all.

Though the weather at the launch day was far from ideal (and a recorded footage is rather ‘cloudy‘), we can say with confidence that implemented almost all planned goals: our probe has reached the stratosphere, flown over the mountains, recorded a footage and — the most important! — we have found it. Besides, the journey (longer than 10 days) was quite eventful, interesting and very insightful.

RandomRace Team

The probe was launched and found by:

With help and support by:

Photos by:

Video recorded in flight

The same video is available at Vimeo, Vkontakte and YouTube (from where it is actually linked here). This video can also be downloaded at as mp4-file, not compressed by video hosting services (190 Mb, h.264).

Some frames from the video

Mt. Elbrus (5642 m)
Двугорбая гора в левом верхнем углу — Эльбрус (5642 метра)
The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range
Главный Кавказский хребет
Mt. Egiuzleruchu (2267 m)
Гора Егюзлеручу (2267 метров)

Flight data

Supplementary materials


Update by 21.07.2015

The Global Space Balloon Challenge 2015 has been finally summed up. This year there were 125 teams from 27 countries.
And our launch has won in the Longest Ground Track category! First, our balloon has flown along a longest route (250 km) and, secondly, we met a transnational requirement by launching the balloon in one country and finding it in another one. Apart from other categories, there is a non-material prize, which still seems very cool for me:
Prize: Team Names and individual names will be laser-etched on a Planet Labs satellite before its launch to space.
The detailed contest results are given on the results page (+ the thread in their community).

This is what is mentioned about our launch at the results page:

With a long trek from the ocean into the snowy Russian mountains, team RandomRace takes first place in the Longest Ground Track category by recovering their payload (including brandy!) after a flight going 250km. RandomRace is an organization based in St Petersburg that uses HABs to bring people in their community together and get them excited about science and technology; they launch with students at schools and for GSBC 2014 flew from Palace Square with hundreds of onlookers. This year, team RandomRace assembled their payload with a homemade 433 Hz transmitter, their own pressure and temperature data loggers, and various different trackers to ensure they could track it down. They trekked to the black sea coast and released their balloon, capturing gorgeous pictures of the surrounding mountains and then spending two days traveling to the site of the landing, including several hours of backpacking, to recover their precious payload. Congratulations to team RandomRace on another successful flight and true adventure! For an entertaining story of the trip with some incredible photos from their trek, check out their website: http://www.randomrace.ru/2015/gsbc/eng/

It should be noted that the Russian MONSTER team from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology was at the top in the Space Technology Demonstration nomination. It has launched two balloons at the same time with a tricky device for communication between the balloons and the ground. Russia was therefore twice at the top (among ten categories). For sure, this is the success!

Update by 15.02.2017

Yahoo! A year Almost two years later…

5-Feb-2017, at 03:58 UTC, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched a “PSLV-C37” missile, carrying 104 satellites. This a world-record number of satellites launched at once. 88 of those satellites were built by “Planet Labs” company, which designs and launches microsatellites “Dove”, intended to produce hi-res photographs of the Earth. All the Planet’s launched serie is named “Flock 3P”, and the very last of the satellites, “Flock 3P 88”, has a side panel with “RandomRace” logo and team members names etched on. The heroes were awarded! :-)

3D-render of “Dove” microsatellite (rendered by Planet labs)
Общий вид спутника «Dove» (3D-модель Planet Labs)
“Dove” satellite Flock 3P 88, ready to launch (photo by Planet labs)
Таблички с логотипами команд-призёров и фамилиями участников; наша — нижняя (фото Planet Labs)
Side panels with etched logos and names; bottom one is “our” (photo by Planet labs)
Табличка команды «RandomRace», закреплённая на спутнике «Dove» (фото Planet Labs)
Indian space missile PSLV is staring (photo by ISRO)
Индийская ракета-носитель PSLV, выводящая спутники «Dove» (фото ISRO)