March 2017 – We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska and flew three balloons over the state. We chose March, near the vernal equinox, as the optimal time to observe the Aurora Borealis due to the right combination of clear skies and space weather.
Our primary objective in Alaska was to successfully video record the Northern Lights on a balloon platform for the first time. Prior to doing so, we planned to fly a couple high-altitude balloons during the day to acclimate to the weather and capture the beautiful snowy landscape.
The complexity of this mission in the harsh Alaska conditions called for some custom hardware. This began with the NCL Balloon Integrated Re-programmable Computer (BRIC) – Mark II. The BRIC consists of an Arduino MEGA which runs our custom flight management software. We had a custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB) fabricated to allow for ease of integration with other components including a GPS unit, radio telemetry link, barometric altitude sensor, and 8 thermistors (temperature sensors). The GPS helps us determine position, the radio allows us to track the payload in real time, and the thermistors give feedback for our electric heating system needed to keep everything from freezing in the harsh -50 C (-58 F) high altitude environment.
The PCB design also allowed us to easily assemble multiple units, allowing us to bring two complete builds with us to Alaska. This was a necessity, as there was a very real possibility we would lose one in the remote Alaskan wilderness. We also had a day and night configuration, the difference between them being cameras. The day flight configuration flew a GoPro Hero 4 Black, a 360Fly virtual reality camera, and a Google Pixel phone. The GoPro Hero 4 and 360Fly recorded in 4K during the entire flight, while the Google Pixel was set to take pictures every two seconds. The night flight was designed around the low-light capable Sony A7S with an external 4K recorder.