Breaking news

  •     6/21/2015 - Big update on StratoCat's database allows now to obtain more information about each balloon launch mission listed "on the fly", connecting each balloon record to meaningful data over the internet.
  •     7/20/2015 - Preparations for the Stratoscience 2015 balloon launch campaign at Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base, currently underway. Six balloon flights planned between August and September.
  •     7/27/2015 - D-SEND#2 drop test completed at ESRANGE. The japanese plane was ejected at 30 km over the safety zone north of the launch complex and glided to the ground safely.
  •     Good data obtained by JAXA staff throught the balloon-borne monitoring system suspended from a tethered balloon on the ground.
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat, your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon

Succesful drop test of japanese plane model in ESRANGE - 7/28/2015

Kiruna, Sweden.- No doubt, the balloon launch base located in the ESRANGE space complex near Kiruna, is one of the best places to test anything related to aerospace systems: a low populated and isolated landscape, sourrounded by a huge area with controled ground and airspace is the ideal "laboratory" for any kind of rocket, space probe model or plane needed to be droped from above. Thus, following the campaign carried out last June there on behalf the European Space Agency (ESA) to test several models of space capsules that are candidates for returning scientific samples from outside Earth, now was the turn of their counterparts from Japan whom performed a drop test of a plane with a special shape.

The project I'm refering to is the so called D-SEND which stands for "Drop test for the Simplified Evaluation of Non-symmetrically Distributed sonic boom Project" and is aimed to investigate technologies to reduce the sonic boom generated by supersonic flight, which is one of the most critical issues in realizing supersonic civil transport in the future.

The first phase of the D-SEND project took place also at ESRANGE in May 2011 when two kinds of axisymmetric bodies the LBM (Low-Boom Model), which generates normal sonic boom waves, and the NWM (N-Wave Model), whose shape is designed to reduce sonic boom were dropped from the same balloon. For the second phase of the project, an innovative experimental supersonic airplane denominated S3CM (S-Cube Concept Model) is being used. This new plane was designed using JAXA's original low-boom design technology with sonic boom abatement at the fore and aft of the airplane.

Sequence of the launch of the second ERC balloon. Image taken through the webcam located in a nearby hill captured via Internet In August 2013, the first drop test of that new plane was part of the second phase of the project was carried out but unsuccessfuly, as the test vehicle after its separation from the balloon deviated from the expected flight path about 12 kilometers short of the targeted boom measurement area, and reached the ground 8 kilometers before the target area.

In 2014 JAXA returned to Esrange to complete the second test, but after waiting during almost two months, the campaign was cancelled as meteorological conditions were not ideal within the test window period.

2015, would see finally the succesful completion of the program.

During June, the test model was prepared, including a full dry rehearsal of the launch procedures and also was deployed the BMS (Boom Measurement System) that will "hear" the sonic signature of the test model using a tethered blimp floating at 1 km, holding several microphones at different heights along the flight path of the plane. The BMS was installed in a remote part of the Esrange Impact Area and required a great amount of logistics.

Althought the launch window opened on June 29, the teams from JAXA and SSC waited almost one month for the right weather conditions for the drop. Finally, the conditions seemed right on July 24, so the preparations for the launch started.

The balloon was released at 4:43 utc (picture above) and after a nominal climbing it reached a float altitude of 30.5 km. Once the balloon was located inside the drop zone a command was sent to the control gondola and the test vehicle was droped around 10:00 utc. The plan was to accelerate during free fall, achieving Mach 1.3 with a flight path angle of 50 degrees; alike occured in 2013, this time the numbers were very close: Mach 1.39 and the angle 47.5 degrees.

Below these lines there is a video composed from the imagery obtained by onboard cameras along with an animation that show the plane's attitude during the fall.

According to a press release issued by JAXA days after the test, " has been confirmed that the supersonic experimental airplane successfully flew over the Boom Measurement System (BMS)*1, and that booms*2 generated from the airplane were measured by multiple microphones.

It is the world's first successful flight test in which an experimental airplane designed with low sonic boom design concept to reduce both front and rear shock waves was flown at supersonic speed and had its sonic booms captured. As soon as detailed analysis of the BMS and flight data are completed, we will further report on our goal, which is to validate JAXA's original low sonic boom design concept..."

View of the landed D-SEND#2 plane after the drop

During the last days of July, the JAXA team started the packing to return to Japan which would be completed around mid-August, just in time to leave the integration building for the next campaign to be carried out: the launch of 6 to 8 balloons for the BARREL project, aimed to study electron losses from Earth's Radiation Belts.

ERC campaign performed in ESRANGE - 7/14/2015

Kiruna, Sweden.- Besides the fact that during almost 35 years all kind of missions were performed at the balloon launch base located in the ESRANGE space complex near Kiruna, the particular characteristics of its location and isolation have transformed it in the right place to perform drop tests of all types of vehicles. Thus, during last June, the Swedish base was the scenario of a brief campaign performed on behalf the European Space Agency (ESA). The effort was carried out by staff of the Swedish Space Corporation which was in charge of the balloon operations and personnel from Vorticity Systems, a UK based aerospace firm that provided the test payloads.

The aim of the ERC campaign -the acronym stands for Earth Return Capsule- was to drop test from the stratosphere several models of space capsules that are candidates for returning scientific samples from asteroids, comets or Mars in future ESA missions. These missions will require capsules which would be stable throughout entry and descent without the need for a parachute.

Three different designs have been chosen to be tested one resembling the ESA Huygens probe that landed on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan in 2005, and the other two based on the Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return capsules.

Althought the plan called for three balloon missions, only two were finally performed. The first balloon was launched on Monday, June 15 at 20:34 UTC while the second was sent aloft on Sunday, June 21, at 15:36 UTC. The payload weight was around a half ton, and the drop altitude varied from 28 to 35 km from one mission to another. Balloons used for both flights were manufactured by the french firm Zodiac (main provider of the French balloon program) and were 50SF models with a volume of 50.000 cubic meters.

Below these lines there is a capture I've made during the second mission from the live feed transmited by the Radar Hill camera located near the launch pad.

Sequence of the launch of the second ERC balloon. Image taken through the webcam located in a nearby hill captured via Internet

Althought I've managed to contact Vorticity Systems to obtain more details of the tests, no additional information was handed to me. However, they assured me that later in the year they will offer more details after discussing the results with their customer.

August Update

The third and final drop of the campaign was carried out in August 5. The balloon was released at 6:03 utc carrying three payloads: the first payload was meant to be released automatically as soon as the balloon came within the so called Esrange Impact Area and reached a minimum height of 28 km. The other two drop bodies were meant to be released manually on command from an altitude of 35 kilometers and higher. According to the news published by the Swedish Space Corporation all three payloads were succesfuly released and recovered within the Esrange impact area.

    A big update in StratoCat - 6/21/2015

Since the inception of this website, my objective was to offer as much information as possible about the scientific ballooning field. In these first ten years online (yeah! ten years) I've improved steadily the quantity and quality of the data offered here. However, as being a one person project, StratoCat's grow was slower than expected.

Thanks to our regular visitors, our twitter followers, and many people that was part of this activity in the past, or are still involved with it, this humble project has become one of the websites of reference about scientific ballooning both for the general public and for the experts in the field. With the addition that I'm presenting today, I hope to make a great leap towards it's consolidation.

StratoCat's core is a huge database containing information about balloon launches performed in the world for scientific purposes, since 1947. When I'm say huge I mean above 12.000 entries (or "rows") with more of 60 fields (or "columns") of data each. That is -believe me- a lot of data. Until now, the website offered merely a glimpse to part of this information through a "small window" composed by basic data of the balloon launches ordered gegraphically or cronologically, and in a few cases more detailed reports. That information, however, had two major problems: in many cases it showed merely a name or an acronym with no significance for the general public, and generally it was isolated of related data available on the internet. It's like a goldfish swimming in his own fishbowl, floating isolated in the Ocean.

To improve this state of things, and to free the little fish from his prison I'm adding a feature that will give StratoCat's something fundamental: meaning and context along with a frame of reference to each entry.


If you look now at the record entry pages for a particular year, or the balloon launches listed under the history of a specific base, no change will be noticeable at first sight. There wou will find the same columns: the launch site, date and time of launch, and information regarding the last fate of the payload. But if you move the mouse over the column labeled "Experiment" a text will be displayed showing more complete information (when available) about the sponsors of the flight, the purpose of the experiment, scientific results, and other information of relevance from that particular mission. Finally, will be links to external references so you can get more detailed information on that particular mission, or to know the source of reference for that particular entry.

In such cases on which most of this information is absent, at least, there will be a text or link pointing to the origin of such an entry.

The idea to introduce this improvement, was haunting me during the last two years, but I was not happy with the different approaches I've tested to implement it. However all changed last October, when by chance, searching for information on a particular balloon-borne experiment I've discovered the Database of Charged Cosmic Rays, developed by D. Maurin, F. Melot, and R. Taillet. The three French scientists had compiled and published experimental cosmic-ray data, in such a simple and nice form that since the moment I discovered it, their idea served as inspiration and guide for my own project. From these lines I want to express all my appreciation for they "involuntary contribution". Also I want to express my gratitude to Stephan Wagner who developed JBox, the powerful plugin I'm using to implement this feature.

Last but not least, as a result of this change, the number of records published in the website shrinked from the 12209 launches from the last update in November 2014 (the full database) to merely above 8200 of the current update, which represents the total amount of records with at least one reference included. I hope to get the numbers back to the origins in a few months.

Simply enjoy, and as always, the final word came from you, the visitors, users and friends of this humble project. Feel free to say what you think about this feature or anything else you consider relevant. I'm always hear you, people !

Greetings from the south side of the blue ball.

Luis E. Pacheco, webmaster.

Partial success on Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator test in Hawaii - 6/12/2015

Kauai, Hawaii.- The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in charge of NASA's scientific balloon program launched on June 8, a stratospheric balloon from the U.S. Navy installations of the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands, in the western shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii.

The balloon, measuring 34.000.000 cubic feet of volume, transported a Test Vehicle developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project. This initiative is aimed to simulate on earth's stratosphere an actual orbital reentry operation in the thin atmosphere of Mars to demonstrate and evaluate the behaviour of two new technologies: the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) which is an inflatable Kevlar tube around the vehicle which will create atmospheric drag to help to slow it down, and the Supersonic Ring-Sail (SSRS) parachute, similar to the one currently used in Mars landings but two times larger. Both systems are key for future Mars missions whose payload weight will increase beyond the capabilities of the technology currently in use.

The test was a partial success: the vehicle was succesfuly droped, acelerated as expected to Mach 4 and the SIAD system fully inflated, but at the time of the parachute deployment -as occured in the first test carried out in June 2014- it collapsed.

NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator hangs from a launch tower at U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. (image: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The campaign was started on late April, when LDSD's Test Vehicle arrived to Kauai aboard a C-17 military cargo. From that moment on, the preflight integration commenced, including the integration of the Star 48 rocket, and the preparation of the launch tower used for safety reasons to launch the vehicle. On May 26, teams from CSBF, JPL and the PMRF gathered at their respective stations to run through a launch day timeline.

NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator ascending under the balloon at U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan/Released)As part of a local tradition, Uncle Tom Takahashi, a native Hawaiian elder from a local church said a special blessing over the test vehicle which was named "Kalani Ike Ike Kahonua" ("highest boy in heaven"). Finally, on May 29 as the launch window aproached (opening on June 2 and spanning ten days) a dress rehearsal was conducted. On it, the LDSD team went through the countdown and steps required to prepare and launch the balloon and perform the drop of the test vehicle.

By June 1st all was ready. The first launch attempt was set for the next day, but then unfavorable ocean conditions forced to delay the test. The same occured for June 3. Operations were a Go to launch the LDSD test vehicle on June 4, and were closely to launch it but a line of rain showers developed overnight moved towards the launch site, which resulted in unstable wind conditions near the surface, forcing to again cancel the attempt. Possible launch dates over the weekend were also scrubbed due to weather, setting the next possibility of launch for next Monday. Hopefully, that would be the right one.

On June 8 early morning, the inflation was carried out in almost perfect conditions, and the balloon was released from the spool at 17:46 utc (7:46 local time). As it elevated above the launch pad it advanced slowly to the tower that held the Test Vehicle. Two minutes later, in a very smooth operation, the payload detached from the tower, and was taken by the balloon, and both elements started to ascent.

The climbing to float altitude was very slow, but transcurred uneventful. The balloon moved mostly to the southwest, crossing the extension of Ocean that separated the Island of Kauai from its westerly neighbor Ni'ihau, and after overflying it, entered in the designated area for the drop. Float altitude of 119.500 ft was reached at 20:23 utc, a little more than an hour before the time set for the drop.

The final countdown started at 21:34 utc and one minute later, the Test Vehicle detached from the balloon and fell a few meters before firing the Star 48B engine that rocketed it to 180.000 ft at a increasing speed that topped Mach 4 in less than three minutes. After burnout of the rocket, the vehicle started the reentry phase; then was succesfuly inflated the SIAD braking system. A tense minute followed until the moment on which the ballute was released and a few seconds later it pulled the parachute that deployed. For the dissapointment of spectators and members of the project, the parachute was shreded in pieces by the rushing air.

Below these lines there is a video with a recapitulation of the entire flight and the moment of the simulated Mars orbital reentry. There is also published on Youtube the entire transmission of the event spanning four hours from pre-launch preparations to the end of the transmission.

As ocurred with the first test in 2014, the Test Vehicle reached the ocean surface without the help of a fully inflated parachute to soften the impact, which was very violent, even more -in my humble opinion after seeing the pictures of the recovery effort- than the previous year.

As usual, sailors assigned to Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1 from the Explosive Ordnance Detachment recovered the test vehicle that same day, and returned it to Kauai.

Next day, NASA scientists held a media briefing to discuss the status of the project. Briefing participants were Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, Mark Adler, LDSD project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and Ian Clark, LDSD principal investigator at JPL.

"We conducted a difficult and complex supersonic experiment in Earth's stratosphere, and it was a successful conduct of that experiment," started Mark Adler. "But the most obvious result of that experiment was a parachute that did not survive much past inflation".

"A preliminary look at our loads data indicate that the parachute developed full, or nearly full, drag up to the point where that damage can be observed" said Ian Clark while showing two video frames from imagery captured by on-board cameras showing the parachute just before and just after it started failing.

"It shows what looks to be a largely, if not fully, intact parachute at full inflation," Clark said. "In the next frame, you begin to see a radial tear develop, and after that the parachute just cannot survive the supersonic environment any further."

"Once we successfully recover the data from the recorder and the data cards, the team will have met the success criteria for this flight," said Steve Jurczyk. "Like any science experiment, it is successful if you were able to conduct the experiment, get the data you were looking for, and then be able to make conclusions from that data".

The main change from last year's test was the modification of the parachute, which was changed from a disksail to a ringsail design and added more high-strength Kevlar to it to better whitstand the opening shock. "On this project, we're pushing the limits of our technologies, our engineering and our understanding of aerodynamic decelerators," added Clark. "This year, the physics of supersonic parachutes pushed back on us."

The original project -carried out at a total cost of $230 million dollars- called for three similar tests. Now, with the first two failed flights, NASA would be inject additional funding, to perform an additional mission. The reason is that to be considered reliable enough to be applied in future Mars missions, these new technologies, must pass two consecutive and succesful tests.

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