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Record-breaking altitude flight ends prematurely

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A trail of powdered charcoal escapes from the “Jon Magnus II” balloon early Wednesday as balloon designer Danny Bowman, right, and launch engineer Sarah Albert run to keep up with the fast moving orb. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A second attempt to set a Guinness World Record for altitude in an unmanned, passive-solar hot air balloon was deflated early Wednesday when the “Jon Magnus II” balloon began descending about 90 minutes after its 6:45 a.m. launch from Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Park.

Sarah Albert, the launch engineer for the group of citizen scientists, and a geophysicist at Sandia National Laboratories, said preliminary data suggests the balloon ascended to about 25,000 before it began to steadily descend about 8:15 a.m.

It came to rest about 9:30 a.m. in a juniper tree on the east side of the Sandia Mountains, southeast of Placitas.

If all had gone as planned, the balloon would have reached a record-setting altitude in excess of 75,o00 feet within a matter of hours, said Danny Bowman, who designed the balloon and is also a geophysicist at Sandia National Laboratories.

The current record is 23,000 meters, or 75,459 feet.

“It looks like there may have been an issue with the balloon going up too fast, causing it to pop,” he said. “I’m going to have to do a redesign.”

The 30-foot tall balloon was constructed from light-duty plastic sheets of painter’s drop cloth held together with shipping tape.

The interior surface of the balloon was coated with fine charcoal dust, allowing better absorption of the sun’s heat, pushing the balloon higher into the atmosphere, Bowman said.

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Branden Christensen, of Boquete, Panama, CEO of Raspberry Shake, carries the balloon payload that includes the Raspberry Boom, an atmospheric infrasound device that picks up low frequency sounds below what the human ear can detect. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Attached to the balloon, which weighed 3-4 pounds, was its 1.5 pound payload of  sensors to track and transmit GPS location and altitude information, a camera and a Raspberry Boom device to listen to atmospheric infrasound, said Branden Christensen, CEO of Raspberry Shake, the Panama-based company that makes the Raspberry Boom.

The device, he said, picks up low frequency sounds that are below what the human ear can detect and which rise to the stratosphere. Such sounds might include the ocean, wind blowing over mountains, volcanic eruptions, lightning, or rockets being launched into space, Christensen said.

Albert noted that there are many practical applications for infrasound, not the least of which is using it to monitor earth processes.

“In Alaska, for example, a lot of volcanoes are in the Aleutian chain and are difficult to access and difficult to get sensors around. So they use infrasound out there to detect volcanic eruptions and then notify the Federal Aviation Administration or the public.”

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The passive solar powered “Jon Magnus II” hot air balloon quickly gains altitude early Wednesday above Balloon Fiesta Park. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Infrasound has also been used to to help detect earthquakes and and chemical explosions, she said.

Had the balloon exceeded the 75,000 foot milestone, Bowman said he and his partners in the endeavor, including a cadre of volunteers, intended take what they learned from the data and build a larger balloon to launch in September in an attempt to break the unofficial 100,000 foot altitude record set in the early 1990s by the French space agency CNES.

“I probably won’t build a bigger balloon until we figure out why this one failed,” Bowman said. “There would be no point. But we still intend to launch another balloon in September. So, we’re not defeated. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a world record.”

An earlier attempt to break the record in April 2018 in the “Jon Magnus I” balloon failed after the balloon climbed to about 21,000 feet before slowly descending and landing between Clines Corners and Santa Rosa. Bowman said he believes the two balloons failed for the same reason.

The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum provided the space and supplies required to construct the two balloons.

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Albuquerque geophysicists, Danny Bowman and Sarah Albert dump excess powdered charcoal out of the “Jon Magnus II” passive solar hot air balloon in preparation for an early Wednesday morning launch intended to set a new altitude record. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

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