As locals and tourists alike developed stiff necks while admiring the show, completely enraptured by the aurora borealis, members of Project Aether couldn't be bothered to look up. They were scrambling on the ground, feverishly assembling and tweaking two rigs that were also destined to create a show in the sky. The team's creations were made of carbon-fiber tubes, exotic material conventionally lashed together with PVC junctions, string and duct tape. A lot of duct tape.
The tape was mostly for attaching the payload, blue insulated lunchboxes of the type often seen stuffed in the back of corporate refrigerators. Inside were not leftovers, rather a block of pink insulating foam with cavities carved for all manner of things: patriotic flags, plastic Easter eggs, scientific equipment and, usually, one or more GoPro cameras -- the same sort you might have seen dangling conspicuously from the helmet of your favorite extreme athlete.
The string on the rigs, meanwhile, attached the entire contraption to a weather balloon. Torn from silvery packages, each of two balloons that would be launched that night were coupled with a large tank of helium and slowly filled, swelling to roughly 6-foot diameters before being sealed off with zip ties and, yes, more duct tape.
The first rig's lines were attached to the first off-white orb, now eager to climb. A few quick and deftly tied knots made everything level. Gyros on and quietly whirring, GoPros recording and mutely blinking red, one team-member grabbed the whole contraption and gingerly held it up toward the green inferno in the sky above.
"FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE!" the team counted in unison and then, a silent count later, the rig was set free, pale white weather balloon shoved upward by the dense, cold Alaskan air around. Its silent departure was a slight anticlimax to the flurry of activity leading up to its release. The white balloon quickly became a shrinking black orb above, blocking out an ever-smaller arc of the sky.
Within moments it was gone and, a few minutes later, its larger sibling followed, both on journeys that would take them to the edge of space, atmosphere left mostly below. But they wouldn't be one-way journeys. Those balloons stretched and swelled in the chilly vacuum and finally burst upwards of 100,000 feet above the ground, sending the payloads tumbling down, slowed by two homemade parachutes, bleating GPS coordinates all the way. Over the course of two weeks nearly 20 balloons would make this trip, soaring to incredible heights while being carried away by the wind before finally crashing to the ground and calling home for a pickup. At that point the task of finding the rigs -- and the valuable scientific payloads onboard -- began.
Project Aether is the creation of Ben Longmier, a man with a strong affinity for the fun, hands-on science experiments he conducted as a kid. Though Ben completed his grade school studies 12 years ago – going on to a Ph.D. in plasma physics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison – he's still a guy with an overwhelming sense of wonderment at it all. Tall, blonde and built of sturdy, Midwestern DNA, you only need to ask a brief question about outer space to bring a youthful look of excitement to his face. He may know the answer to just about any question you throw at him, but that answer is always delivered such that you'd think he was just learning the answer himself.
That enthusiasm is infectious, and it's exactly what he's hoping to spread thanks to his work up in Alaska – and elsewhere. Though his full-time occupation sees him running the propulsion lab at the University of Michigan's Aerospace Department (he recently left a gig at Ad Astra Rocket Company, where he fine-tuned plasma-powered rockets), expanding kids' excitement of science on a broader scale is a very personal mission that's taken form in Project Aether.
The balloons sent into the chilly Alaskan nights are certainly vessels for scientific discovery, carrying fascinating experiments aloft that help us to better understand what's behind the dazzling light show those in the north have been enjoying since the dawn of time. One experiment, relying on tinfoil balls, measured the conductivity of the air during auroral outbreaks. Another tested a low-cost and Arduino-powered altimeter while a third carried blocks of Aerogel, hoping to scoop up a few micrometeorites before coming crashing down.
Then there are the cameras, of course, collections of modified and unmodified GoPro HD Hero2's that ride along to tell the researchers what the northern lights look like from within and, more importantly, how the rigs behave at extreme altitudes.
But those cameras provide a third, even more valuable service: inspiring and teaching kids. The balloons deliver amazing footage from amazing heights that even the most science-averse student can't help but admire. Seeing 1080p clips captured at 100,000 feet, where the sky is black and the Earth curves away below, gets your attention. And, once you have a kid's attention, teaching them about the science behind what they're seeing becomes a lot easier.
Getting a 10-year-old to appreciate concepts like the density of a gas affected by temperature is difficult. Getting that same 10-year-old excited to calculate the right amount of helium to inject into a balloon she's going to launch 20 miles into the air is, however, rather easier.
For years, interest in so-called STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) has been waning among American students. Classroom curricula has gradually become more advanced, but so too has it become more distanced from practical reality. Getting a 10-year-old to appreciate concepts like the density of a gas affected by temperature is difficult. Getting that same 10-year-old excited to calculate the right amount of helium to inject into a balloon she's going to launch 20 miles into the air is, however, rather easier.
It's this captivation that has brought teachers like Elizabeth Henriquez and Rosanna Satterfield to the project, both from New Jersey and looking to develop curricula that can be shared. Both teachers help with the preparation of the rigs that will be strung from balloons and with the processing of the retrieved payloads, but during the days, while many members of the team are sleeping off a late night launch or hunting in the wilderness for a plaintive GPS signal, these two could often be found Skyping updates to students back on the east coast.
The teachers' goal was to engage while educating. As a project, the team has done just that, sharing lesson plans with schools around the US and abroad, plans they're more than willing to share with anyone who stops by the project's website, http://projectaether.org/.
The Air Retrieval
I joined members of Project Aether at their temporary home base while in Alaska, an otherwise quaint B&B in Fairbanks that looked to have been occupied by a science-loving, yet heavy-drinking, fraternity. Long-empty bottles of IPA sat next to still-warm soldering irons and well-loved breadboards. Disconnected gyroscopes could be found scattered about, looking like incredibly fine toys, and everywhere you looked was a GoPro or three. Dozens of the things were about, some mounted and ready for launch, some still frosty and cold after trips through the stratosphere -- and some in various states of disassembly, IR filters being extracted to extend low-light recording sensitivities.
Over the course of the two weeks the Aether team set up its residence, many students with many experiments filtered through the house. Two of those students, John Guthery and Frans Ebersohn from the rather more temperate graduate program at Texas A&M, had been there for days when we came knocking. From the house they tracked the various payloads scattered to the winds across the central Alaskan wilderness. Coordinates were relayed back to the team through a number of means, most straightforward being simple Spot transmitters, which rely on satellite connectivity and integrated GPS receivers to transmit coordinates back to home base.
Like any good spacecraft, there are redundancies, however. Inside a waterproof yellow Pelican case lives a GPS unit broadcasting its location directly over long-range radio. Should that system fail, a third, simpler solution is duct-taped to the side of the rigs, the sort of beacon often used for directionally tracking wildlife -- of which there is plenty to be found around these parts.
That third system was something of a last resort, and not one we'd need to use for my first retrieval with the team. GPS coordinates were successfully received from the Spot transmitter, passed from Guthery to project leader Longmier.
Longmier showed me the exact location using an incredibly powerful piece of software that is, thankfully, free for all: Google Earth. With the coordinates punched in to the app we got a dramatic fly-over of the White Mountains, zooming in to the location. The first balloon was resting on a ridge about 60 miles to the north. It was a long, long way from the closest road so hiking in was impossible, while a lack of snow in the area meant snowmachines (also known as snowmobiles or sleds in more moderate latitudes) were right-out.
So Guthery and I headed down to a small local airport for the team's most impressive, yet also most expensive, option: a helicopter. A tiny, four-seat chopper sat in the sun on the landing pad while Mike Terwilliger, its lanky and incredibly affable -- yet sidearm-packing -- pilot awaited our arrival. He gave us a quick safety briefing, described a number of exciting ways to be dismembered or decapitated by either or both of the craft's two spinning blades, then helped us climb in the cabin.
I must confess to feeling a bit like an explorer in a videogame as I watched the distance to our target decline and the waypoint indicator stay pegged straight ahead.
The engine was disconcertingly reluctant to fire but the thing eventually shuddered to life and, after a few moments of dial-checking and knob-fondling, Terwilliger swept us upward and on our way. I had my Delorme PN-60 handheld GPS on me, into which I'd plugged the coordinates, and I must confess to feeling a bit like an explorer in a videogame as I watched the distance to our target decline and the waypoint indicator stay pegged straight ahead.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline and countless exhausted goldmines swept by below us, plus many more natural sights, like a pair of moose meandering through bare trees, hunting for tender bark to nibble on. As the hills rose up toward us the timber line fell below and it was clear we'd not need the snowshoes stuffed in the back of the 'copter. Most of the ridges on the mountain were covered rocks, not snow.
Getting closer, Terwilliger relied on Guthery and I to call out direction and coordinates and, as we swept around a small ridge, I spotted a fluttering bit of orange off to the left. It was one of the rig's parachutes, each one hand-sewn by Longmier's mother.
It was clear that Terwilliger would be able to land not far from the DayGlo fabric. As he looked for the best spot to set down he filled our ears with yet more austere descriptions of ways to die, most focusing on jumping out of the door too quickly, thus causing the helicopter to become unbalanced and flip over the other way, crashing in what would be a presumably spectacular way.
Thankfully we didn't have to worry about that, as he found solid ground and set us down with the incredibly deft touch of an Alaskan bush pilot. With a nod, he said it was safe to disembark but that he wouldn't be shutting the thing down, meaning the main rotor / decapitator above would be spinning away. I ducked as I stepped out of the side door and succeeded at my primary objective: evacuating the helicopter without having my head removed from my shoulders.
I did, however, fail to accomplish a secondary objective: doing so gracefully. My foot went into a surprisingly deep patch of snow as soon as I stepped out and I tumbled forward, a proudly clumsy moment captured by two of the half-dozen GoPros stuck in various places around the craft.
Guthery more efficiently stepped out of the back door and the two of us scampered up the hill to the payload, parachute fluttering wildly in the now turbulent mountain air. We only had to cover about 150 feet up to the thing, which I collected with satisfaction, he with pride. It was his altimeter that was taped on the side of what we had located, and he hadn't seen it since it disappeared into the sky days earlier.
Balloons that float do so for a very simple reason: they're filled with a gas that's less dense than the air around them. Blow into a balloon and it won't have any particular desire to rise (unless you let go of the nozzle, of course). Pump it full of something like helium or hydrogen, however, and it will certainly show a strong inclination to go up and up until it reaches an altitude where the air is just as thin.
Helium is what the team used for the most part, first relying on small canisters anyone can purchase for a birthday party, then later moving to bigger, industrial-sized tanks. They used some hydrogen, too, but only after making all the requisite Hindenburg jokes.
It's not the weight of the rig that dictates the maximum altitude; it's the maximum volume of the balloon carrying it aloft.
On the ground, the balloons were filled with just enough gas to lift the rigs, and little more. This often left the latex things looking just a bit flaccid on the ground, but this is for good reason: as the air gets thinner the force compressing the helium or hydrogen inside weakens. This causes the balloon to expand as it rises until, ultimately, it bursts. It's not the weight of the rig that dictates the maximum altitude; it's the maximum volume of the balloon carrying it aloft.
While the experimental payloads varied widely depending on their nature, the preparations for the cameras was largely consistent. The blue lunchboxes provided a small amount of insulation, but pink polystyrene foam did the bulk of keeping things safe, while a handful of disposable hand warmers helped to keep things somewhat toasty when the temperatures dropped to -40 degrees Celsius.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the GoPros were modified to remove their internal IR filters, hoping to boost their nighttime sensitivity. But beyond that, they were mostly left alone. The waterproof cases were often filled with nitrogen to help purge any water vapor that might form droplets on the way up, but otherwise, they were off-the-shelf units.
The Land Retrieval
While the helicopter trip was a true highlight, I later was able to follow along for another journey. A payload was located at a distance just a few miles from the launching point. Its coordinates on Google Earth placed it up a short ridge, a locale that, with a little snowshoeing, should be easily reachable. Easily, but slowly, with early estimates figuring this would be a 10-hour snowshoe into the wilderness -- if everything went well.
Team-member Mark Tronicke and I looked at the map, searching for the best point of access. Tronicke, another affable teacher from New Jersey, was the team's de facto wilderness expert, having survived a night amidst the snow and the trees when an earlier snowmachine retrieval turned into a far more arduous trek than anticipated. With his disconcerting tale fresh in my mind, not to mention the memory of the massive grey wolf tracks I'd seen just a few days earlier trekking around Denali, I prepped my gear and my snowshoes. I stuffed my pack with as much fluids and food as I had on-hand while trying to shake the gnawing thought that I might not be quite ready for a 10-hour backcountry slog through waist-deep powder and what could be a tricky river crossing. Just the same, the adventurer in me ensured I didn't fret too much -- I wasn't going to sit out this attempt.
Tronicke, Guthery, Ebersohn and I hopped into an SUV and headed up to what looked to be the best access point: Murphy Dome. This was actually the launching point we'd used the night before, a clearing on top of one of the highest hills close to Fairbanks. With few nearby trees and little in the way of light pollution it was a great place to launch a balloon and to enjoy the aurora. Unfortunately, it wouldn't prove to be a good start for our retrieval.
We quickly found two problems. First, we couldn't get nearly as close to the beacon as we'd hoped in the team's rental SUV, which was crippled with both front-wheel drive and some EPA-friendly all-season tires. We knew we might be able to drive down closer to the beacon, but we'd have to wait until summer to drive back out again. Second, early eyeball estimates of the distance had been way off. Way off. Instead of the planned three-mile (one-way) hike, our two handheld GPS units agreed it was over eight miles to the beacon. It was approaching noon and even in a place where the sun doesn't set until 9:30, if we set out then we'd never make it back before nightfall. We'd be lucky to get back by the following morning.
While we discussed alternate means of access -- snowmachines looking to be problematic thanks to the water crossing, helicopters difficult due to the tree density -- we reluctantly scrubbed the first approach and headed to a separate beacon hoisted aloft in an earlier launch. This one was far easier to access, conveniently under a mile away from a dirt road that wound itself up, down and around various hills before depositing us at the home of a local who had, earlier in the week, offered some lasagna made of moose meat to the team-members when they secured permission to chase down the rig. The moose had been "bagged" in her back yard, naturally.
We set off past her house, tracking through wet powder that was usually at our knees, sometimes deeper. Again our GPS devices were our navigators, counting down the distance and keeping us headed in the right direction as Ebersohn broke the trail up front, cracking jokes in a mock Austrian accent borrowed from the "Pumping Up with Hans and Franz" SNL skit from the '80s. The accent was so pervasive that the entire team couldn't resist a more guttural way of speaking, so much so that John was now called Hans most of the time.
It was beautiful country, completely silent and not a single structure in sight despite our vantage point offering views for hundreds of miles. While there are surely more barren places in the world than Alaska, it's hard to imagine one's self being more isolated than while trekking through the wilderness there -- and that's despite fairly prevalent cell reception in the greater Anchorage area.
We each took turns tumbling into the occasional powder wells that we found along the way, Ebersohn more stable than the rest thanks to his carbon fiber pole used as a walking stick, me a little more unsure thanks to the decidedly non-waterproof Canon 5D Mark II slung around my neck. It was slow progress but we found the device with little trouble, partially buried by windswept snow, the plastic figure of the team mascot, The Little Prince, still attached to the outside. What a journey he'd taken to the stars -- or nearly there, anyway.
As thrilling as the retrievals can be, there's nothing to match the excitement of uncovering the data that lay inside. While much of the science would take time to evaluate (like the results of Ebersohn's atmospheric conductivity test) it took no time to appreciate the footage that came from the many cameras that were hoisted aloft.
GoPros from a given launch are stacked up next to laptops before being cracked open like reluctant polycarbonate oysters, the chilled gas inside creating something of a stubborn vacuum that's difficult to break. Frigid SD cards are then pulled from cameras and plugged into laptops, each with folders containing hours of footage or thousands of still photos, depending on the camera configuration.
As the memory card contents were opened, typically scattered across a handful of folders, the crew gathered around to marvel at the sights captured from great heights -- each surely hoping to enjoy such views themselves some day but, for now, having to make do with a 1080p digital proxy. Daytime launches showed spectacular vistas, flowing cloudscapes left far below or the craggy peaks of the breathtaking Alaskan range turned into so many tiny crumples of white paper.
Nighttime launches, of course, showed less detail of the ground, but it was these the team studied most intently. They were, after all, hoping to get a glimpse at the aurora borealis from within. And they succeeded.
One of the last balloons to be launched, sent aloft on the spectacular night described above, captured a series of images of the bright green and purple swaths of color that flamboyantly danced across the sky. The tiny sensors of the helmet cameras struggled to capture them with the same brilliance as the (relatively) huge DSLR sensor we used on the ground, but capture them they did.
As they flipped from one photo to the next, they made the same boisterous exclamations that the tourists standing on the hill had made days before when watching the light show in real-time. The members of Project Aether, of course, had missed most of the colorful dancing lights above while they prepared the rigs that would be launched into them, but now the team's payback was sweet. They were getting to watch that same show from a very, very privileged perspective.