In June 2013, a group of Stanford graduate students launched a GoPro-equipped weather balloon over the Arizona desert in the name of science. The project was a phenomenal success in all ways but one: when the camera-carrying payload fell back to Earth, it was nowhere to be found, seemingly lost forever until it was discovered in a remarkable stroke of luck.
Ved Chirayath wanted to get video of the Grand Canyon from near-space for his dissertation work in fluid lensing. “The experiment consisted of gathering high-resolution and high frame rate video data over a target of interest (and beauty) from above 65,000 ft,” Chirayath wrote on his project site. They were also testing the capability of cell phone GPS technology at very high altitudes.
It took the team, which in addition to Chirayath included Bryan Chan, Ashish Goel, Paul Tarantino and Tyler Reid, a couple of months to plan everything — the helium, the cameras, getting the go-ahead from the FAA, and figuring out how to locate the box when it fell to the ground.
They were more than well-prepared, but the otherwise successful balloon launch — which soared to 97,000 feet — ended with a thud when the team was not able to find the balloon’s payload, including all of that gorgeous video. The cell phone in the payload was programmed to text the team its coordinates when it was within range of a cell phone tower. But the cell tower maps they had been using were not accurate, and the planned landing location they thought was within range of cell service was decidedly not.
Despite offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who found the box, the project seemed to be lost forever in the Arizona desert. “We were all moping around, making bets on when (if ever) it would be found,” Chan wrote on Reddit.
But two years later, an Arizona woman was on a hike when she spotted the odd box. And, “in a twist of ironic fate,” said Chan, she worked at AT&T and knew to take the enclosed cell phone to a store to identify the SIM card owner.
“We were all freaking out for a few days after we got a hold of all the video footage and data,” Chan wrote.
What they found was an amazing, 1 ½-hour video of the gorgeous, Arizona landscape from nearly 20 miles high in near-space. The balloon climbs higher and higher over the orange-red landscape, gyrating in the wind. As the homemade weather balloon soars past 80,000 feet, the Grand Canyon appears, snaking through the desert landscape next to our planet’s beautiful blue horizon — totally worth the two-year wait.