Stratofox Aerospace Tracking & Recovery Team

Needle in a Haystack: Stratofox recovers missing Japanese CanSat

iImage: Stratofox recovers missing Japanese CanSat resarch payload at the Black Rock Desert, Nevada on NOvember 23, 2008]
On Sunday, November 23, 2008, the Stratofox Aerospace Tracking & Recovery Team went to the Black Rock Desert to recover a Japanese research "CanSat" which has been missing since September. The search was successful.

The odds against this outcome were perceived very pessimistically. The proverbial "needle in a haystack" looked good in comparison. We were looking for a soda can sized object somewhere in the vast Black Rock Desert.

This soda can sized object is called a "CanSat". Invented by Stanford University professor Bob Twiggs, the idea of using a soda can as a standard research payload container turned out to be such a simple, intuitive and useful idea that it has been adopted as a de-facto international standard. With such a standard, rocket builders can plan on one size of payload and be ready to provide research flights for student payloads from just about anywhere.

The normal flight profile for a CanSat is that the rocket will carry it up to apogee, the highest point of the flight, and then eject it overboard to perform its research on the way down. The CanSat is responsible to deploy its own parachute, or possibly some other recovery mechanism.

After one particular flight in September at AeroPac's XPRS rocket launch event, the rocket was recovered but the CanSat remained missing. The aerospace engineering students who built this CanSat returned home to Japan without their flight data. It must have been quite a disappointment.

One of AeroPac's members who acted as a mentor for the students, Paul Hopkins KE6DAX, asked Stratofox for help to look for it before the weather closed the season for the search. The chances were slim since the transmitter batteries had already long since died before the request was made. It was going to be strictly a visual search.

Just on the odds against it, many people thought this search shouldn't even be attempted. There were some potential scenarios which might make things not as bad as imagined. And indeed one of those scenarios did happen, making the search possible and successful because it was attempted. More simply, this couldn't have been done without some luck.

One possibility provided a ray of hope. If the parachute was no longer attached, the CanSat may not have moved far even with storms that have occurred in the area since the CanSat's flight. And that scenario was what happened. The CanSat, without parachute, was found about 1/2 mile away from the point where the rocket was recovered. We do not know whether the parachute was lost in flight or after landing.

This small item is a difficult thing to see in the vast desert on any day. In the hot days in September, the CanSat may have been further obscured by the mirage, where 1/2 mile is enough to make even large objects disappear. But in November when the surface wasn't as hot, the visibility goes much farther. Also, Stratofox has experience with looking for missing items on the Black Rock lakebed anyway.

We don't know if the Japanese students will be able to recover any data from the CanSat after it had been exposed to the elements for 2 months. But they wouldn't have had any chance without the payload recovery. Flash memories are fairly resilient - so there's reason for hope.

In addition to the CanSat, the team found and picked up a model rocket nose cone and parachute, a high-power rocket interstage coupler, a broken fragment of a high-power rocket fuselage, two World War II air-to-air anti-aircraft shell casings, a bullet casing and a large spent bullet (possibly also from WWII).

So, as all visitors are encouraged to do, we left the Black Rock Desert cleaner than we found it.


The participants in this search were Stratofox members Ian Kluft KO6YQ from San Jose, California and Tom White KG6BRK from Placerville, California.

The Point of Contact (emergency and routine status contact) for the event was Owen DeLong KB6MER from San Jose, California.

See the photos from the event.


"That might be the droid we are looking for."
Erik Ebert, AeroPac rocketeer
first reaction to the photos of the CanSat

"It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing."
Boromir, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
a quote that came to mind sometimes during the preparation and search

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