by Doug Brown
On Tuesday morning, a group of Case Western students and a recent alumna loaded a white styrofoam box with their customized microcomputers and sensors, a GPS tracker, and two outward-facing GoPro cameras and strapped it to a high altitude research balloon to collect data from the stratosphere. The group of about nine people for the student-led startup aerospace company called Carbon Origins launched it for the Case Western Reserve University engineering school's Saint-Gobain competition.
The going up part was a great success. They alerted the FAA and launched it around 6 a.m. Tuesday, and the balloon reached nearly 150,000 feet in the air — higher than Felix Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos jump and about 30,000 feet higher than their previous launch — said Duchesne Torio, a recent Case Western mechanical engineering graduate, to Scene on Wednesday night.
The coming down part was not so smooth: the styrofoam box, with the high definition video footage and computer with invaluable data from space, is floating in Lake Erie, tracked by its GPS to a location miles off the Ashtabula County coastline. That was not supposed to happen. Their previous launches landed landed in retrievable locations in rural Pennsylvania, Allegheny State Park and western New York, Torio said.
When members of Carbon Origins were off to retrieve it, they realized this one was water bound: "that's when we started scrambling for ideas on how to get it back." It's about 15 miles into Lake Erie directly north of Conneaut in Ashtabula County, and they've spent the better part of two days trying to figure out how to retrieve it.
"Everything for this project came out of our pockets," Torio explained. "We weren't sponsored by anyone, and that's why we're going crazy trying to find it."
They've tried a lot already: they've contacted the Coast Guard posts in Cleveland and Ashtabula County, and both said they couldn't help. They've tried the Boat Owners Association of the United States, and "all sorts of marinas on the shore... but none of them are open to willing to risk going there." They headed to Torio's friend's sister's house in Conneaut because she knew her husband had a boat, "but like everyone else it's still in winter storage; he helped us out spending a few hours trying to contact any of his friends that have a boat, and again, same thing, and they didn't have an ice breaker so they weren't willing to risk going out into Lake Erie." They contacted a fire department about using an air boat, but the department gave it to the Coast Guard and none of the department's contacts were available. They thought about renting a seaplane — one of the group members is a licensed pilot — but that was too expensive and dangerous. They also reached out on Reddit.
"The final idea we had was to rent a helicopter, but that is like two grand for an hour or two," Torio said, "even without the person who would actually repel and pick it up. It's been a little crazy trying to come up with ideas."
On Wednesday, the box's GPS was pinged at the following coordinates: 42.21878, -80.59932. That's about 15 miles off the coast of Lake Erie, directly north of Conneaut.
How you can help
Anybody know someone with a boat who could make it out there to help some enterprising local college students? Are there any Richard Branson-types in Northeast Ohio with a sense of adventure and personal helicopter ready to go? (Surely there must be) Does anybody have any ideas of how this project can be salvaged?
If so, get in touch with Carbon Origins member and recent Case graduate Duchesne Torio by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know how you can help. Ideas and resources would be greatly appreciated.
What it looks like
Here's what our box looks like. It's slightly bigger without any of the round holes since we decided to mount the balloon differently. Also, the square hole on the side is where we mounted the first Go Pro. We cut the opening like that to make sure that our field of view isn't obscured by the box. The second one was mounted on top (a few inches to the right of the recycling logo) with the same cut hole so that we could watch the balloon burst (it started with a 2m diameter and it would've burst at roughly 20m).
Get at it Scene readers, and help some of the city's brightest young entrepreneurs out.