COSI’14 Recovery (long overdue)

Balloon payloads are effectively reusable. You launch your instrument once, after the flight is terminated it lands with the assistance of a parachute, you go out and pick it up, take it back to the lab for repairs/upgrades, and then you’re able to launch it again often within a year or two. So, with such a short flight and a close landing it would be pretty likely that we could recover the entire COSI instrument in the remainder of the Antarctic summer season.

The COSI instrument landed on the Polar Plateau about 350 miles away from McMurdo. We were scheduled to fly on a Twin Otter, which, due to the cabin size and weight limits, meant that we’d have to go out on three separate day trips to pick up everything. It’s a two hour plane ride, and we’d be limited to three hours on the ground. Our highest priority for the recovery was to get the computer hard drives, which store the raw flight data, and then of course the cryostat. The majority of our electronics are custom built, so ideally we’d recover the entire instrument, limiting the amount of rebuilding that would need to be done between campaigns. Either way, we have to almost entirely disassemble the instrument out in the field to fit things in the plane to bring back.

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The Twin Otter which took us out for recovery.

I was the lucky one who got to go out for recovery. It’s typically one scientist (usually an eager grad student), one rigger, the LDB camp manager Scott Battion, and a pilot + co-pilot. After termination the rest of the COSI team helped pack up everything in our Weatherport for the shipment back to Berkeley and then left the continent, leaving me to twiddle my thumbs waiting for a recovery flight.

The ballon was terminated on Dec 30th, and it wasn’t until Jan 21st that we actually got our first flight out to the payload. We had the GPS coordinates of the payload that were transmitted from the instrument after it landed, so we knew where to go looking for it.

The flight out to the instrument was so amazing, that it’s hard for me to put it into words. We got to fly over the Transantarctic Mountain Range. And the sites were breathtaking. I’ve included some photos here, but my little camera doesn’t do the mountains or ice any justice.

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LDB seen from the air on our way out. There’s our tiny little Weatherport on the left. And if you zoom in and squint you can see the shape of Annie beside the galley. Hey Annie!

 

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The COSI landing site, as I mentioned, was in the middle of the Eastern Polar Plateau, also referred to as the Great Flat White, as will become apparent with the pictures below. Once landing beside the instrument, we worked for 2 and a half hours to get the hard drives and remove the cryostat and shield detectors from the gondola. It was pretty tough work, especially removing the heavy/delicate cryostat and undoing the hundreds of 2-56 screws that connected the signal cables, but Garrison and Scott were really efficient and we had lots of help from the pilot and co-pilot.

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Our first sighting of the COSI payload from the air.

COSI what was found #1

COSI what was found #2

Photos taken by Scott Battion showing the COSI instrument as we found it on the Polar Plateau.

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Doug and Steve watching Scott remove the OpenPort antennas during a short break on our first trip out to the site. You can see the empty hole in the top of the gondola where the cryostat used to be.

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Garrison, the appointed recovery rigger, and I failing at a jumping high-five after we finished packing up on our first day of recovery. He went for two hands and I just went for one. It was a disaster.

We didn’t have enough fuel for the ride back to McMurdo, so we had to stop off at a fuel cache at Odell Glacier.

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Steve and Doug refueling the plane while Scott, Garrison and I used the opportunity to stretch our legs and take some photos.

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On the trip back, we took a different route, taking us to the edge of the ice. We got to see lots of seals and penguins and even spotted a couple of whales from the air. It was even more incredible than the ride out, and I didn’t think that was possible.

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All those black dots to the right are seals.

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Unfortunately, the adventure had to end. We made it back safe and sound to McMurdo and unloaded the recovered items. I was still so excited by the journey and I couldn’t stop smiling for hours. But, we needed to rest up to be ready to fly out again the next day.

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Garrison showing off the recovered CSBF instrumentation placed gently into the  back of a pickup.

Turns out it was a couple of days before we flew out again. That time it was a lot colder, as you can see from my frosted eyelashes, and there were even more tiny 2-56 screws to undo. But, we were able to recover the rest of our electronics boxes and all of our cables, leaving only the gondola frame and battery box in the field for the final pickup.

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I walked a bit away to get a shot of the recovery site showing a glimpse of the expanse of the Great Flat White.

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It was on this second flight that we tried our darnedest to locate the balloon. It usually falls within a few miles of the gondola, and seeing the direction that the parachute lands gives you a pretty good indicator for the direction of the balloon. We searched and searched the surrounding area, flying over miles of white ice, but even with 10 eyes looking out we unfortunately didn’t find the giant thing. I like to consider this a sacrifice to the balloon gods, maybe they’ll be on our side this next time around.

Scott and Garrison made the third trip out to the site without me to disassemble the gondola (“disassemble” is code “cutting to shreds”) and clean up the site.

After all was said and done it was time to leave the continent. What an amazing way to spend three months. Definitely something our team will never forget.

 

I want to give a final shout out to Lisa, the LDB galley chef. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend lots of time hanging out with Lisa in her kitchen, especially after the rest of the COSI team left. She’s amazing and her cooking is amazing and she made the entire experience that much more amazing. Thanks Lisa :).

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Lisa BBQing out at LDB with my support (read: eating finger-licking delicious ribs!). The CSBF guys requested more meat, so that’s what they got.

COSI Termination

I’m saddened to report that the COSI/SPB balloon flight was terminated much earlier than expected. The balloon developed a leak after the first day at float and we decided to increase the chances of instrument recovery this season instead of continuing operations for as long as the balloon maintained altitude. The payload had a smooth landing at about 6:15 am this morning and is currently sitting 350 miles from McMurdo at an elevation of 8000 ft. Hopefully we’ll be able to get out there within the week to recover the hard drives and detectors and whatever else will fit in the plane.

Thank you to everyone who followed the campaign, your positive words were encouraging and inspiring. Thank you to NASA and the SPB program, it was an honour to be able to be the first science flight on this generation of super pressure balloons, too bad we couldn’t kick that 55-day-record’s butt. A huge thanks goes out to all of CSBF, the support you’ve shown us and our science team over the past months has been amazing and your handle on the launch and termination was precise and professional. Here’s to another COSI launch in the super near future!

Fifth launch attempt

11:00 PM: Less than 12 hours after the previous attempt got called off, we are heading back to LDB to try again…

12:10 AM: We’re rolling out, and Brent and I remembered to start the playlist! The Boss is about to pick us up.

12:45 AM: We just heard from CSBF that the winds are looking pretty good. We should be heading to the flight line soon. Though that’s great news about the winds, I think we’re all a little afraid to get our hopes up again…

1:45 AM: We’re heading to the flight line! CSBF claims they are “cautiously optimistic”. The winds are staying fairly consistent, so they’ve decided which way to lay out the balloon. Hopefully the wind direction doesn’t change too much.

COSI and the Boss heading to the launch pad

COSI and the Boss heading to the launch pad

This little trailer brings the parachute out to the launch pad

This little trailer brings the parachute out to the launch pad

2:00 AM: Each science group gets to use one of the mules during their balloon launch, so that we can easily get out to the launch pad and back. Brent, Carolyn and I went to go pick it up and park it right next to the weather port.

Brent and Carolyn were really excited about getting the mule

Brent and Carolyn were really excited about getting the mule

The back seat wasn't set up properly, so I rode in the back

The back seat wasn’t set up properly, so I rode in the back

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2:10 AM: The helium trucks are heading out to the launch pad. Now it’s just the balloon that needs to get picked up.

3:20 AM: Winds are looking too high, again.

4:00 AM: The low level winds look perfect, but the surface winds keep oscillating between being too high and being fine. The balloon got taken out of the weather port and is heading towards the launch pad. This doesn’t mean it will get taken out of the box. A current idea is to wait until the surface winds go down again, and then immediately start inflating, hoping that they stick to the pattern of being down for about an hour and a half. This sounds pretty risky, so CSBF hasn’t decided yet if that’s what we’ll be doing.

It's been a long night, and a long week! Brent and I decided to nap. Unfortunately we only have one cot, but thankfully the big red is pretty comfortable.

It’s been a long night, and a long week! Brent and I decided to nap while we waited for CSBF to come pick up the balloon. Unfortunately we only have one cot, but luckily the big red is pretty comfortable.

Now that the balloon is out of the weather port, we have a ton of space. Carolyn decided to lie down right in the middle of the building, something we haven't been able to do in quite awhile.

Now that the balloon is out of the weather port, we have a ton of space. Carolyn decided to lie down right in the middle of the building, something we haven’t been able to do in quite awhile.

5:40 AM: We’re still waiting for the surface winds to die down.

8:40 AM: They’ve taken the balloon out of the box! This means they’re being very serious about the launch. However, as we learned during launch attempt 2, it doesn’t necessarily mean the launch will happen.

9:10 AM: They’re starting inflation! More updates to come later, video here: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/ice.htm

10:20 AM: And we’ve launched!

The balloon during inflation, the parachute, the Boss, and COSI

The balloon during inflation, the parachute, the Boss, and COSI

Me in front of the balloon during inflation

Me in front of the balloon during inflation

The Boss about to release the payload. My camera wasn't really good enough to handle it.

The Boss about to release the payload. My camera wasn’t really good enough to handle it.

There was this awesome rainbow going on right after launch

There was this awesome rainbow going on right after launch

Go, COSI, go!

Go, COSI, go!

One of the Spider guys took this pretty sweet video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WT6tnEPUQts. The balloon goes in front of the sun, which looks awesome!!

12:18 PM: COSI has launched and the ascent is looking good!!! Pictures of the launch are pending, for now, here are some pictures captured by the CSBF cameras on the gondola during and after launch:

Looking up at the balloon immediately before the gondola was released from the launch vehicle.

Looking up at the balloon immediately before the gondola was released from the launch vehicle.

Looking up at the balloon sometime after launch and after emerging from the low level clouds.

Looking up at the balloon sometime after launch and after emerging from the low level clouds.

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A view of Mount Erebus as COSI emerges from the clouds.

A view of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror from above.

A view of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror from above.

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Not sure how high the balloon is at this point, but yes, you can see the atmosphere and the dark space above. How wicked is that?!

1:15 PM: COSI is officially at float altitude. We’ll be spending the next couple of days using the line-of-sight telemetry link to monitor the instrument. All looks pretty good so far! 

It’s a harsh continent

The last launch attempt was tough. We got so close. Closer than most of us on COSI have ever been to launching a payload that we have worked on. In fact, we got past a point that CSBF said there was no going back from, but then the situation turned a bit dire and we had to back off.

As mentioned many times before, COSI is flying on the super pressure balloon. We’re the first science flight on this type of balloon (although, they’ve flown a science flight on a predecessor many years ago). The super pressure balloon could be the next best thing to happen to scientific ballooning; it promises 100 day flights, which means you get that much closer to mimicking a satellite for a small fraction of the cost. The success of the COSI/SPB flight this season is somewhat pivotal for the SPB progress in the world of science.

But, there’s a catch. Not only do these balloon cost a couple million dollars each, but they are extremely delicate and thus difficult to launch. Looking back at past posts, I realize that we’ve never really described the launch procedure, so here it goes (this is SPB specific).

 

The total time dedicated to preparing to launch is about 8 hours. First, the science team and the CSBF electronics group does their pre-flight checkout. We visually inspect all of the connections on the gondola, we put up a radioactive source to check if our detector lines widths look good, we send commands through each of our telemetry links… we pretty much check every aspect of our system to make sure it’s working as expected. We’ve done this a few times now so it takes just under an hour to go though the 70 item on the list. Chris Field works in parallel checking the SIP (Science Instrument Package), the termination electronics, the batteries and solar power and a lot of other things that I don’t know about.

After we’ve gone through our respective lists, we inform the riggers that we’re ready to be lifted. We get help from the riggers to roll the gondola out the door of our weatherport and out onto the porch. They come over with the launch vehicle, The Boss, and proceed to pick us up. We end up sitting at the end of the weatherport driveway for about another hour while the parachute is hooked up, the termination is tested, and while we check the rest of our telemetry links (the openport iridium link doesn’t work indoors). Then, we’re ready to be moved to the launch pad (this is where we’re currently at while I write this post. Clio is blogging live about the current launch attempt, but we’re on a weather hold for the moment…).

The Boss starts the slow trudge out to middle of the perfectly groomed launch pad, which has been kept in pristine condition by Fleet Ops here in McMurdo. At this point, the CSBF weather guy, Chris Schwantes, has decided which direction the winds will be consistently coming from and thus has chosen the proper direction to lay out the balloon. The balloon and parachute are laid out behind the launch vehicle upwind of the payload so that once the balloon is inflated and released it will sail up to position itself about 600 ft above the payload.

The laying out of the balloon isn’t so simple. This thing is huge. It measures just under 400 ft in diameter once it’s completely inflated at float. It’s stored in a box where the combined weight is 9000 lbs. The balloon itself is only 1.5 mil thick and weighs 5000 lbs. Taking the balloon out of the box is difficult enough, putting the balloon back in the box (in the event of a scrubbed launch attempt) is even crazier. It’s actually a rule at CSBF: super pressure balloons cannot go back in their box. So when that balloon was laid out last Friday during out last launch attempt, CSBF told us that this was it, there was no going back. We were thrilled.

An added complication of the super pressure balloon is the electronics and valves contained in the top of the balloon. This weight makes this inflation process more involved. A smaller balloon, referred to as the tow balloon, is inflated first and attached to the top of the super pressure for the duration of the inflation. Once the inflation of the tow balloon is compete, then the inflation of the main balloon can begin. The balloon is held down on a spool during the inflation, and only once the inflation is complete and the winds are calm and everything else is right, the balloon will be released from the spool and lift itself above the launch vehicle. Because the winds are never quite perfect, the Boss will have to be maneuvered to stay underneath the balloon before the release of the gondola. Then, up up and away!

Our launch attempt last week got us all the way up to the inflation of the tow balloon.  Unfortunately, the winds had changed direction during the few hours that it took to get the launch vehicle, parachute and balloon in position. By the time the tow balloon was inflated, there were cross winds with gusts up to 8 or 9 kts (3-4 kts average is the max for our super pressure launch). The four riggers who were holding the tow balloon in place were doing all they could just to not have it blow away. Seeing the wind direction, the magnitude of the gusts, and the difficulty in just having the tow balloon barely stable, CSBF made the decision that it would be too risky to try and inflate the super pressure. The launch was called off and the tow balloon was released.

At this point, we didn’t really know the significance of the scrubbed launch. The balloon was out, but the launch was cancelled. If we were to take what CSBF said earlier with all seriousness, that would mean that the super pressure balloon was done with (we have no spare). Within the hour, most things were pretty much cleared up. CSBF decided that it would be worth the effort to try and put the balloon back in the box (they got permission from headquarters to attempt to launch with the same balloon again), so not all was lost. It took 10 riggers over an hour of strenuous, delicate work to get the 5000 lbs balloon back. Everyone is crossing their fingers that nothing was damaged in the process and we’re going to go ahead and try to launch again. Today is the day.

If you have a no-wind dance, now’s the time to get moving.

Fourth (real) launch attempt

Lately, the weather hasn’t been so great, but we’ve been asked to show for launch attempts anyway. Sometimes the weather has been so bad we haven’t even rolled out! The rationale behind showing anyway is that we really don’t want to risk missing a launch opportunity. I think today is the fourth actual attempt, depending on how we count them.

We’re hopeful for this one, mostly because the weather guy predicted very good weather for today, but also partly because of the penguin we saw at LDB yesterday. Why is the penguin relevant? The day before ANITA launched, there was a penguin wandering around LDB. So, if there was a penguin here yesterday, maybe that means we’ll launch today!

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Anyway, we left McMurdo at 3 AM and are aiming for an 11 AM launch. Updates will come…

5 AM: We’ve rolled out and are hanging from the Boss.

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COSI getting hooked up to the Boss

6:00 AM: Winds aren’t looking so great right now. We’re on a weather hold for a bit.

9:30 AM: Still waiting for the weather to improve…

11:30 AM: And it’s been scrubbed. The winds are just too high. We’re trying again tonight.

Second Launch Attempt

We’re aiming for a launch around 7AM – 8AM this morning. I’ll try to update here periodically!

12:00 AM: We all met at McMurdo to head out to LDB (except for McBride, who has spent the past two nights on the cot at LDB for some reason). We were supposed to sleep all afternoon, but I’m not sure how well any of us did…thankfully, everyone seems pretty awake thanks to a combination of adrenaline and coffee!

2:30 AM: We’ve rolled out! The gondola is now hanging from the launch vehicle, and we’re doing our telemetry checks.

The riggers rolling the gondola out. Brent made sure to play the song Roll Out, on our playlist just for this occasion!

The riggers rolling the gondola out. Brent made sure to play the song Roll Out, on our playlist just for this occasion!

Derek getting ready to hook the gondola up to the Boss

Derek getting ready to hook the gondola up to the Boss (the launch vehicle)

Attaching the gondola to the Boss

Attaching the gondola to the Boss

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Carolyn and Brent waiting with the back panel while the riggers finish

Carolyn and Brent waiting with the back panel while the riggers finish

Everyone working on or looking at software: the GSE, the distributor, or the GRB monitor program

Me, Brent, McBride and Alex working on software: the GSE, the distributor, or the GRB monitor program

3:30 AM: ANITA planned to send up a little balloon, called HICAL, to help calibrate their instrument. Because the balloon and instrument are small, they can launch it without the Boss. We went out to see them launch, but unfortunately there was a mishap with the balloon: it leaked! Right after getting launched, it fell back down. The CSBF guys had to wrestle it to the ground.

The ANITA team watching the HICAL launch

The ANITA team watching the HICAL launch

A close-up of the HICAL balloon

A close-up of the HICAL balloon

The payload had just dropped to the ground

The payload had just dropped to the ground

Two CSBF guys chasing down the payload

Two CSBF guys chasing down the payload

The riggers trying to wrestle the balloon back down

The riggers trying to wrestle the balloon back down

Hopefully their calibration instrument is okay! They have a backup balloon, so they’ll be able to try again.

Meanwhile, we’re still testing telemetry. Chris is testing out the parachute and balloon terminate commands.

COSI hanging on the Boss

COSI hanging on the Boss

There’s a live stream here: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/ice.htm. Click on Operations Video to see it. That being said, it’s probably not that interesting until the actual launch…

5:30 AM: We are on the flight line! The Boss is on the launch pad, and the balloon is heading there now.

The riggers getting the balloon out of the weatherport

The riggers getting the balloon out of the weatherport

The super pressure balloon is giant and took up almost our entire weather port! The normal balloons are much smaller than this one.

The super pressure balloon is giant and took up almost our entire weather port. The normal balloons are much smaller than this one.

COSI on the flight line!

COSI on the flight line!

Brent was really excited about the prospect of driving around in the cart

Brent was really excited about the prospect of driving around in the cart

They're bringing out the spool. The spool is to hold the balloon down while it's inflating.

They’re bringing out the spool. The spool is to hold the balloon down while it’s inflating.

5:45 AM: Apparently the winds are currently a little too high for the super pressure balloon. We’re proceeding for now, but it sounds like the winds will have to come down for this launch to happen.

7:45 PM: The launch is on! CSBF is laying out the balloon. Inflation is starting imminently!

The parachute, the Boss, and COSI

The parachute and the Boss

CSBF hooking up the parachute

CSBF hooking up the parachute

LDB from the launch pad. It looks so far away!

LDB from the launch pad. It looks so far away!

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COSI hanging

Carolyn and I headed over to check out the balloon. It was really cool to see it get unpacked and laid out.

Starting to take the balloon out of the box

Starting to take the balloon out of the box

The balloon wrapped around the spool

The balloon wrapped around the spool

Laying out the balloon

Laying out the balloon

Laying out the balloon some more

Laying out the balloon some more

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The balloon laid out almost all the way

The balloon laid out almost all the way

The top of the balloon

The top of the balloon

Carolyn and I getting super excited!

Carolyn and I getting super excited!

8:50 AM: And it got too windy. Something went wrong with the tow balloon and they had to let it go. I’m not really sure what the plan is going forward.

11:40 AM: After a nap and some time to process, here’s a final update for today. CSBF put the balloon back in the box, and we will use the super pressure balloon for our next launch attempt. The weather probably isn’t good enough for a launch attempt tomorrow. I’m not sure when the next attempt will be.

6th time’s the charm!

ANITA had their 6th roll out this morning and after a few snags they made it out to the flight line and had a gorgeous launch! For many of us, on COSI and ANITA, this was the first balloon launch we’ve witnessed live. It was remarkable.

For safety reasons, spectators (but only those associated with LDB are allowed) need to stay over 500 feet from the launch pad. People that was deemed non-essential personnel, like ourselves, watch the whole process from just outside of our buildings. The balloon inflation takes about an hour to complete.

Some of the COSI, ANITA, and SPIDER groups waiting around for the inflation to be complete.

Some of the COSI, ANITA, and SPIDER groups waiting around for the inflation to be complete.

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I decided it was a good time for a snow angle.

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McBride, Brent, and Clio standing in front of the ANITA payload on the launch pad with the balloon fully inflated and ready for release.

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ANITA in the middle of the launch pad with the balloon inflating beside it. It looks tiny from here!

The balloon doesn’t swell up to its full size (over 400 ft in diameter) until it reaches its float altitude (110,000 ft).

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Right after the balloon was released. You could hear the whoosh/flapping of the polyethylene even from where we were. It was pretty surreal.

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The Boss maneuvers to stay underneath the balloon before the release of the gondola.

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The ANITA payload after launch. It’s just itty bitty.

GO ANITA GO!!!