A group of Western University PhD students were taking a research leap of faith, and then their bubble was burst; literally and figuratively.

Now, one year after their equipment went missing, the data came back.

The student-led research project was designed to gain insight into what lives in the upper atmosphere.

Phase one incorporated a high-altitude balloon to measure conditions; things like radiation, greenhouse gases and ultraviolet rays.

But Earth Sciences student Matthew Svensson says something went wrong, “It was devastating. We were all in pretty sour moods, to say the least.”

Launched on May 29, 2018 from River Place Park in Ayton, the balloon was supposed to travel about 70 kilometres and come down in the area of Belwood Lake Conservation Area in Fergus. And it was being tracked by GPS during its travels.

Over the landing area, a fuse would light, burning through the balloon tether. A parachute would then open and return the equipment and data to earth.

But the tether didn’t break, creating a bumpy ride which knocked out the GPS.

The team had partnered with members of the London Amateur Radio Club. But no one reported finding the unit and an extensive, week-long search was unsuccessful. But club member, Doug Elliott, had also gone low-tech, writing his contact info on the package.

Last week, almost exactly one year later, the radio club member received a call from a farmer. The unit was found about five kilometres from the planned landing area.

Alexis Pascual is Electrical and Computer Engineering student with the project, “I couldn’t believe it. I mean really, I wasn’t even thinking about ever seeing the payload again after a year of not finding it at all.”

Svensson says it appears animals had come across the equipment and were doing some research of their own, with wiring and components pulled apart.

But, despite that and the passage of time, the data was all salvaged, along with an impressive video of the journey, Svensson says, “It’s kind of hard to believe we’re actually having this conversation at all, because the payload survived the following summer, the fall, the winter, and the spring thaw on top of that.”

The team is now processing information contained on two microchips and planning phase two of the project.

Physics and Astronomy student Mohammed Chamma says they’re planning another high-altitude balloon flight with originally designed equipment.

“These little rods that will pick up bacteria in the atmosphere. And they will open at different altitudes and then seal themselves. When we recover them we can analyze what bacteria we’ve picked up at different altitudes, at different points in the atmosphere.”

Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration director, Dr. Gordon Osinski, says projects like this create new opportunities for the university.

“This opens the door to do really quite interesting science up in the upper parts of the earth’s atmosphere that are understudied. And it’s a stepping stone for us as an institution too, in going into space.”

The next launch is being planned for August in Timmins.