Out of This World

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Mar 25, 2013 7:28 PM
A still shot taken from one of John Hennessey and Amarnath Mukhopadhyay's weather balloon flights. In the top left corner the shape of the Burin Peninsula can be distinguished.

From our vantage point, Newfoundland looks very small. The Gaff Topsails, hundreds of square kilometres of stunning west coast land covered in snowdrifts so immense they resemble dunes, is just a small white smudge on the province's grey-green face - like a spoonful of sugar dumped on a slab of speckled granite. Newfoundland's innumerable ponds are, from here, no more than a collection of icy spots connected by threads of river winding chaotically around hills and plateaus and other formations too tiny to make out. In the distance, a thin strip of land extends like a finger: the entire length of the Burin Peninsula jutting into the sea, everything slightly pinkish from the sunrise. The sun too is visible, and the Avalon Peninsula, and even the curve of the earth. And there in the corner, the black nothingness of space. From this perspective, everything looks small.

John Hennessey, Amarnath Mukhopadhyay and I are 125,000 feet up, in the lower quarter of the stratosphere, nearly 40 kilometres above southwest Newfoundland. But we're also in a quiet study room at the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University. We're looking at a picture John and Amarnath took on February 16, 2013.

How did two university students take a picture from 125,000 feet in the air? The answer seems deceptively simple: they tied a camera to a weather balloon and sent it into the sky. But the real story is much more complex. It begins last year in a medical science lab.

"John came to me one day, we were working in the lab," Amarnath says. "He had seen this video online of a couple of teenagers from Ontario who had done a similar thing, sent a Lego man into space. He mentioned there was no one in Newfoundland who had done this before. The reason was that the weather is so rough here and the chance of the equipment falling into a river or the ocean is really, really high. We thought it was a cool idea and decided to give it a shot."

Amarnath Mukhopadhyay and John Hennessey with some of the equipment used during their space flight.

Behind the scenes
Together they researched exactly how things would work, meticulously planning every step: how they'd get the camera up into the air, what type of balloon they'd use, what to fill the balloon with, how to take the pictures and, perhaps most importantly, how to get the camera back. John purchased the camera, a GoPro Hero 2 (a very hi-tech, very small camera normally used for mounting on helmets and other objects in extreme environments, which can record high-quality video and take still photos), the balloon (a 1,500-gram Totex weather balloon that can carry 200 cubic feet of gas) and a GPS system that would allow them to track the balloon's progress and locate the landing site. They also used special high-altitude ballooning software called "habhub" to plot the course the balloon would take.

Then, after six weeks or so of number crunching and material tests, they were ready. Their first launch took place in Pasadena.

Watch the first launch, from Pasadena, N.L. and footage taken during the flight

"We went out on September 29 and launched the balloon for the first time. It went relatively smoothly," Amarnath says.

The balloon went up, the camera recorded the stunning footage and returned safely to earth, in Millertown Junction. Success. John and Amarnath uploaded the footage to YouTube and immediately began work on the second launch. But this one would be different. "We got such good feedback from doing it the first time that we decided to do it again in the winter and get a nice view of a snow-covered Newfoundland," Amarnath says. John adds, "We wanted to be able to show people the juxtaposition of Newfoundland when it's frozen and when it's not frozen. Because Newfoundland is 70 per cent covered by fresh water, in the wintertime it really does become a frozen land."

So, on the morning of February 16, John and Amarnath woke at five o'clock at the Corner Brook Comfort Inn and began preparing. "We thought about stepping right outside the hotel and launching it," John says, "but we entered the data into the software and it said the payload would land right at the mouth of the Exploits Bay, which would have been dangerous because the bay is saltwater and would not have been frozen."

ThroughImage a process of trial and error, John and Amarnath eliminated various launch spots, plugging data into the software and watching the course the balloon (pictured left) would take appear on the screen as a long green line cutting across much of central Newfoundland. Finally, they settled on Gallants, a small settlement roughly halfway between Corner Brook and Stephenville, as the crow flies.

John and Amarnath were excited as they went through their procedure - checking the gear, filling the balloon, securing everything. When they were ready, they counted down from 10 and let go. The balloon soared, swaying a fair bit at first, but eventually straightened out, and, for two hours 20 minutes, drifted along in the freezing, silent air, nearly 40 kilometres above central Newfoundland until it popped from the cold and the payload attached to a parachute coasted to the ground.

ForImage the second time, the launch was a success. They used the GPS system to zero in on the payload, and eventually found it 182 kilometres northeast of the launch site, perched a few feet beyond the north bank of the Exploits River (pictured left). They say they were lucky; had the launch taken place in the summer or fall, the payload would have fallen directly into the river and been swept down into the falls.

Watch the February launch, from Gallants, N.L. and footage taken during the flight

Along for the ride
Two successful launches under their belt, the honour of being the first Newfoundlanders to send something into space, all that breathtaking footage, and the two still aren't done. In fact, they're ramping up. "We want to go higher and higher," John says, "not only for ourselves, but also to educate the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, to entertain people with beautiful images of our province."

Amarnath elaborates, "What we're planning to do for the next project is aim for approximately 150,000 feet, whereas the last two balloons reached between 120,000 and 125,000 feet." Doing that, however, requires more resources. They're planning on using a balloon twice as big as the ones they've been using, one that can hold two tanks of hydrogen gas. They've purchased a camera that can deliver better footage. And they have a new idea: sponsorship.

"We're asking companies if they're interested in donating money. If they have a logo or something we can take up into the stratosphere over Newfoundland and Labrador, we'd be more than obliged to do it," John says, noting interested companies can reach them through their YouTube channel (search "Newfoundland Weather Balloon" on YouTube or Google).

Already Downhome has signed on. Says company president Grant Young, "Our readers have taken Downhome magazine with them everywhere - tops of mountains, across deserts, under water. This is our 25th year as a magazine. What better way to celebrate than by attempting to reach for the stars?"

Downhome magazine in hand, John and Amarnath are preparing for the next launch, their biggest ever, scheduled to take place May 18, 2013.

For them, the sky is the limit. - Story by Grant Loveys