Operation Ice Dragon – Part 7 – So A Funny Thing Happened

Ice Dragon LogoSo, five days after the launch of Operation Ice Dragon I received a call from a kind fisherman stating he had found the cooler.  I couldn’t believe it, he said he would be coming into Port Canaveral the next day, and said if you would like to come pick it up your more than welcome.

So on the 29th of November I drove two hours to Port Canaveral to grab the payload and what was left of the balloon.  Below are two shots of the cooler right after popping open the lid, as you can see everything was still right where we left it.

I quickly unloaded the SD Cards from the cameras and the phone and washed them with distilled water.  Everything had been drenched in ocean water for the last five days so it was important to get as much of the salt water off them as possible.  After a quick washing I placed the cards in a container of rice in hopes of drying out internals.  I also removed the wooden trinkets we had placed as souvenirs in the payload and placed them in a separate bag of rice to dry them out.

The next day I looked over the SD Cards and they appeared to be dry, I couldn’t wait to see what the balloon had captured.  I tried the phones SD card first to try and pull the tracking information and figure out where the balloon had went.  The data popped right open and I was able to pull the data and do a quick plot of where the balloon had traveled.

Here’s the raw file for anyone curious: Ice Dragon Data

I plotted the data on a great little site that showed the path of the flight, you can click here to check that out.  The data was interesting, you may notice a gap after the balloon reaches 60,000 feet (the data on the plot is in meters), this is due to laws that prohibit the GPS from working over that height.  Another interesting bit of information is that the tracking phone actually ran out of batteries before touching down.  This is most likely due to the phone getting too cold and the batteries draining quickly.  In less than 40 minutes the phone went from a 90% charge to 5% charge, something that had never happened during testing.  So, had the balloon landed on dry land, it looks like it’s location would have not have been reported even if it had cell coverage, and would have still be lost.

Also it’s interesting to note the balloon was nearly seven miles out to sea and still almost 20,000 feet in the air when the battery died, we figure the balloon wound up about 10 miles out to sea once it “splashed down.”

I then focused my attention to the SD cards from the cameras.  I plugged in the first card and was greeted by a prompt asking if i wanted to format the card.  This meant that the card was damaged;  could be the sea water in the camera caused it to corrupt the data as it was written to the card, or perhaps sea water could have damaged the internal components.  The thought crossed my mind I’d been too anxious and had tried to access the card to soon and shorted out it’s electronics.

I decided to try and access the card with a data recovery tool.  I tried the iCare Data Recovery software package which had a free trial.  The software ran but didn’t find any pictures or data.  I decided to try their second recovery option, and after a few minutes of  analyzing the card, the software started recognizing files it could recover.    The trial allowed the recovery of 10 files for free, I quickly choose a few at the start, the middle, and the end of the list clicked recover and the first pictures from the balloon appeared on the screen.   I quickly registered the full version of the software and restored over 600 additional pictures and started sifting through them.  Excitement quickly started to wane though as I noticed a bunch very large .dmg files, my heart sank.  During the setup of the camera I must have in inadvertently turned on a setting that saved those files alongside the regular .jpg pictures as the camera snapped away.  The problem was they ate up so much space the sd card filled to capacity far to quickly.  I went into the folder with the .jpg files and quickly scrolled to the bottom of the list reading the time the pictures were taken and it was certain, this camera had only captured a little less than half the flight.

I eyed the other SD card and thoughts raced through my head… had I set the same setting on that camera, was the SD card readable, it held the last chance I had in having taken pictures as the edge of space.

I slowly plugged in the card and the PC just sat there.  The card wasn’t recognized as anything.  I fired up the Data Recovery software and ran all four tests it had, while it saw there was some soft of card in the computer it had no luck finding anything.  I spent the next hour plugging and unplugging the card and trying to manually install drivers and trying various usb ports on the computer, nothing worked.

Frustrated, I started surfing around looking at other data recovery services.  I found one in Clearwater that charged $125.00, but only if they were successful recovering data.  I chatted with them online, they said I could even drop it off in person and they would show me around.  I closed the chat and starred blankly at the screen of Google search results when a blurb of text caught my eye.  “A regular eraser can be used to clean oxidation off the contacts of an SD Card.”  I groaned to myself why would that work when nothing else had, but decided this would be my last attempt for the night.  I carefully rubbed each of the gold contacts with the eraser and slipped it back in the reader, nothing.  I repeated the process a few more times, nothing.  I pulled the card out one last time and noticed a small contact I had missed, I rubbed it until it was shiny and clean and placed the card back in the reader, a prompt appeared.  What would you like to do with card?

OPEN, OPEN the card I clicked as fast as I could and a folder appeared with thumbnails of various feet that had been standing around the payload as we prepped it for launch.  I scrolled down to the bottom of the folder, the curvature of earth, the darkness of space, over 1,000 pictures.  I yelled for my wife, “YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS.”  Before she could get in the room I’d started copying the files to my local drive, who knows if the card would hold up or just decide to go up in a puff of smoke!  Watching the local folder fill with pictures each one was better and better, I grinned, it had worked, I had pictures of the edge of space!

While everything leading up to and including launch had went well, the recovery ended up being a constant string of luck and fortune.  The finding of the payload, the ability to recover the sd cards, the cameras images were clear and not fogged with condensation, the cameras batteries had held up to the cold temperature while the phone had not.

The Operation was a blast, and a great experiment.  My goal of getting the pictures was met, and now a nice blown up copy of one of the shots sits on my desk at work.  While it turned out to be a bit more pricey than I anticipated  I’d recommend the experiment to anyone looking for a fun project.


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