Back Home -- Annapolis Royal Space Agency’s probe retrieved from Atlantic

Published on June 12, 2017

The Annapolis Royal Space Agency’s balloon launch June 8 took place at the Annapolis West Education Centre soccer field. This photo shows the crowd of students watching the liftoff. The balloon accidentally travelled all the way to the waters off Peggy’s Cove.


ANNAPOLIS ROYAL, NS - After a frustrating launch and an agonizing few days, the Annapolis Royal Space Agency was able to retrieve its wayward space probe that had landed in the Atlantic Ocean off Peggy’s Cove.

The student-launched space probe should have landed near New Germany June 8 but went way farther east and ended up in the water a long way from shore. Computer projections of currents predicted it would head for Europe, but reality later showed it heading for shore.

The humanity in science is just as compelling as the data it collects. That is what makes this project so compelling.

Derick Smith, teacher

But it hit the water hard and had a rough time for the next 24 hours.

“Most of the electronics were damaged by seawater that leaked in,” said Annapolis West Eduction Centre teacher Derick Smith on Saturday when they were finally able to bring the Styrofoam box back to the school. “The package hit the water at 70 kilometres and hour and then had to weather a storm surge the following day.” 

The package, launched from a soccer field by the Annapolis Royal Space Agency June 8 at about 10:25 a.m., reached an altitude of almost 30 kilometres before the balloon it was attached to burst and the box drifted back down on a small orange parachute.

It hit the Atlantic Ocean about 20 kilometres south of Peggy’s Cove at 3:31 p.m. A miscalculation of the amount of helium in the balloon is being blamed by the agency.

Students were able to track the flight with help from the Annapolis Valley Amateur Radio Club who put a transmitter and antenna in the package.

From tracking data it was almost immediately obvious that the ascent rate of the balloon was too slow, giving jet stream winds more time to send the large white orb a lot farther east than computer-generated projections had predicted. At one point it was zooming along at 109 kilometres per hour.

One of the Annapolis Royal Space Agency’s GoPro cameras survived a crash into the Atlantic Thursday, June 8 and recorded the agency’s balloon ascent and part of its trip across Nova Scotia to the Atlantic.


Blue Rocks

The balloon popped just east of Lunenburg above Blue Rocks instead of just west of New Germany. It drifted another 25 or 30 kilometres as it fell the 29,761 metres to the Atlantic.

And the radio transmitter went dark. Fortunately they had redundancies and a device called a SpotGen came up big. It went to sleep during their 2016 launch and only woke up to supply GPS coordinates several weeks later. This time it worked and the ARSA received a ping Friday that indicated it was drifting to shore. Saturday they were able to retrieve the box.

“The Spotgen was the only reason we were able to recover the package this year and it is still functional so we can reuse it next year,” said Smith. 

But it was bad news for some of the other gear.

“Most of the electronics were damaged by seawater that leaked in,” said Smith. “One of the most frustrating parts of the recovery was finding out that the GoPro on the selfie stick was ripped off and lost at sea. To make things worse the other camera malfunctioned and did not capture the flight video.”

Luckily they added a third backup camera that got most of the ascent, but it had a smaller memory card and couldn’t capture the longer-than-planned flight. 

“We captured some temperature readings but the Arduino boards took a hard hit from the salt water and the memory stored on the card was corrupted,” Smith said. “I will be working on trying to recover that data as well as the lost video footage this week. The rest of the gear is in a bag of rice and hopefully, we can use it on the next flight in the fall.”

Students at Annapolis West Education Centre watched while members of the Annapolis Royal Space Agency and the Annapolis Valley Amateur Radio Club launched a balloon that carried a package 30 kilometres into the atmosphere. The balloon drifted too far east and when it popped, its package landed south of Peggy’s Cove. But by Saturday it had been retrieved and was back at the school.

©Lawrence Powell

Team Work

Students were a bit worried but optimistic after the June 8 launch.

“At first there was great confusion as to why the package was ascending so slowly, which was extremely frustrating,” said student Abigail Bonnington. “Once we realized our mistake and it became apparent that it would hit the ocean, I was very discouraged -- all the hard work we'd put into it.”

“I’m a little worried that we’re not going to find it, but I’m confident we’ll get it eventually,” said student Griffin Batt. “A little stressed because a lot of work’s gone into that and I don’t want to lose this package because we planned on re-launching the same package with a different balloon, but I’m still pretty confident that we will find it and get the footage. But it might be a week or a little while longer.”

Going forward, Smith said the agency will be working more on how to function better as a team. 

“All of our failures so far, have come from technical problems that we as a team, could have easily fixed,” he said. “We have approached the last two projects focused too much on the problems we want to solve and not enough on how we as a team are going to solve them.  In the end, maybe the lessons we learn about ourselves are more important than all of the technical knowledge we gain. The humanity in science is just as compelling as the data it collects. That is what makes this project so compelling. We will continue to explore our sky above and learn more about who we are on the ground.”