Far Horizons is the Adler Planetarium's people-powered space program. For over 7 years we have launched high altitude balloons into the stratosphere for the purpose of education, experimentation and inspiration. Summers are our busiest times as we have a range of programs for a variety of audiences. With middle school children in our Exploring the Edge of Space Camps (EEOS), our high school internship program, undergrad Illinois Space Grant Consortium interns to teen and adult volunteers, we work on real-world projects used to explore and improve the exploration our near space environment.
We managed two successful flights in the past few weeks. The first was a test run for our equipment ahead of the busy summer schedule in addition to introducing a load of Adler educators to the excitement and prospects of high altitude exploration. The second flight was for our EEOS camp. 15 middle school aged campers assembled and launched a payload, navigated the chase, and retrieved their very own near space mission.
Now that the favorable summer jet stream has kicked in - where the higher altitude stratospheric winds take a dramatic westward turn - our flights take on the familiar "Z" pattern. This makes very high flights convenient due to the folded path. In fact, the higher we fly, the shorter the ground track. On the June 27 flight we used a 2000g balloon and reached an altitude of over 103,000 feet. Even though the balloon was over 19 miles above our heads at the time, we were able to spot it with the naked eye from the side of the road and even watched it burst. It appeared as a small white dot in a sea of pale blue sky. This wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the fact that as the balloon rises through a thinning atmosphere with increasingly lower pressure, the helium expands stretching the balloon to the size of a small house.
As always we equipped the payload with video cameras to capture the view. The summer skies were awash with a complex mix of cloud formations. You can see highlights of the flight on our YouTube channel to get a taste of the variety of cloud types visible from the stratosphere and also get a sense of the distances we can see from our near space platform.
The June 27 retrieval was textbook. We were on the chase and as the payload descended below 10,000 feet, we were pre-positioned close enough to spot the parachute and payload on its way to the ground. We rounded the corner of the farm where the descending payload was last spotted and drove past a dairy farm. The landing was within 3 miles from our predicted path and it landed in a soybean field making recovery a snap. High corn and forests are the toughest to search! In retrospect, we really dodged a bullet. Looking at the satellite image of the landing location, we discovered the payload landed only a few hundred yards from... well... let's call it a cow-made "lake". Maybe we should invest in hazmat suits - just in case. You can never know which way the wind will blow. In this case we were just lucky it was, away.
Written by Ken Walczak, Far Horizons lab manager, Adler Planetarium