Back Down to Earth

Two years later, balloon cameras turn up in the desert.

January/February 2016

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Back Down to Earth

FAR OUT: The Grand Canyon from 98,000 feet. Photo: Grand Canyon Stratospheric Balloon Team/

At first, Ved Chirayath dismissed the phone call as a prank. “I think I found your balloon,” the caller said.

Two years earlier, Chirayath, ’12, MS ’14, had driven 19 hours straight to an area near the Grand Canyon with four fellow grad students, two tanks of helium and a high-altitude balloon destined—with luck—for the edge of space.

The balloon’s payload: a GoPro camera, a phone for issuing GPS locations and, most important, a downward-facing, high-frame-rate camcorder to photograph the canyon. Chirayath was testing algorithms he wrote aimed at removing distortions that result when photographing images through the turbulence of the atmosphere. The outcome, fingers crossed, would be a virtual satellite view of one of the world’s most famous landscapes with resolution down to a few centimeters. And progress on Chirayath’s dissertation.

But the team lost contact with the balloon shortly before it plunged 98,000 feet back to earth. All night, Chirayath and his colleagues scoured the desert in search of a backup beacon, but around 4 a.m. they finally bowed to a hard reality. It was time to leave rather than miss finals.

A reward offer failed to deliver the missing cameras. But two years later came a stroke of luck. An AT&T employee who lives on a local Native American reservation discovered the cameras just miles from where Chirayath had been searching and used the phone’s SIM card to contact him. 

The needle-in-a-haystack backstory coupled with the breathtaking GoPro footage proved online gold. After another team member, Bryan Chan, MS ’11, put the footage on YouTube, it garnered more than 6 million views and inspired stories in news outlets across the globe.

The recovered data was used for his dissertation, but for Chirayath, who now works at NASA and who recently applied to be an astronaut, holding something he built that’s been to the edge of space and back makes the cosmic even more real. “It closes a loop in your head,” he says.

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