Ontario to Maine: Space enthusiasts track balloon to Jay


JAY — Somewhere over the Vermont-New Hampshire border, LASA VIII drifted high into the stratosphere, well beyond the range of its half-watt radio tracker.  

The team chasing the weather balloon, HAM radio enthusiasts and members of Lanark Space Agency of Perth, Ontario, Canada, kept chugging along at ground level.

The balloon, the group’s eighth, continued climbing until it had flown past the Berlin, N.H., airport. 

It topped out at 130,903 feet — that’s more than 24 miles up — just west of the Maine border, where the helium balloon carrying the tiny payload popped. A small parachute carried it down into Maine — over Grafton Notch, past Rumford and Mexico and finally into a field just off Intervale Road in Jay, at about 1:43 p.m. on Nov. 20.

“We had a smaller parachute on it this time,” said team member Peter McCracken. “We’re quite happy with the results. Usually the descents are a lot slower and we’re worried about going too far, winding up in the ocean.”

McCracken, who describes himself as an amateur space enthusiast, said the team began launching high-altitude weather balloons as a project with a Montessori school in Perth three years ago.


“We had parents, students and a very motivated teacher,” McCracken said. “We had kids on a media team, sending out press releases to newspapers and a tech team involved in launching and tracking the balloon and a creative class that made a collage that was sent up with the balloon.”

That first mission ended up in Maine, too. It landed in Highland Plantation, far north of Jay. Subsequent flights have landed in Montreal, Vermont and upstate New York.

McCracken said the team pared down its payload for the eighth mission, which launched at 9:11 a.m. on Nov. 20 from Perth, Ontario.

“In the past, we’ve carried thermometers to measure the heat layers in the atmosphere,” he said. “This time, we just had a radio and a tracker, the lightest version we’ve had yet. It weighed less than half a pound.”

The package carries a global positioning system to track the flight, connected to a small half-watt radio that broadcasts the balloon’s geographic coordinates and altitude. Everything is powered by a few lithium-cell batteries.

The signal is picked up by a series of digital repeaters and sent along. The team monitored the flight on radios and tracked it on a website as a backup.

“If you were listening, it sounded just like an old modem,” McCracken said. “It travels so high that nothing interferes with the signal. But it’s only half a watt, so we did lose it at one point.”

Team members followed along ground-side, keeping up as well as they could. At one point, they monitored as the balloon rose into the jet stream, accelerating to more than 250 miles per hour.

“We sure have learned where the air currents to Maine are,” McCracken said.

The group plans its ninth launch in April, when members hope to work with their local high school.

“We think the kids can come up with some neat experiments for that launch — whatever is suitable for the curriculum,” he said.

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View Ontario to Maine in a day: The flight of LASA VIII in a larger map