Breaking news

  •     20/8/2014 NASA performed the first two missions of the fall balloon launch campaign at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. The missions were HASP and HySICS/WASP
  •     Still rest to perform another 8 flights during the remainder of August and September.
  •     21/8/2014 The opening flight of the Strato-Science 2014 balloon launch campaign at the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base, in Ontario was performed today.
  •     Another 8 balloons ranging from 100.000 m3 to 800.000 m3 of volume will be launched during the remainder of August and September including payloads from Europe and also from Canada as flight opportunities.
  •     22/8/2014 The Japanese Space Agency performed over the Pacific Ocean a drop test of the BOV experiment aimed to obtain seconds of microgravity during the free-fall from the stratosphere.
  •     This was the first balloon launch from Taiki Aerospace Research Field in northern Japan since the balloon failure suffered in June 2013 trying to launch this same experiment.
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon.

First scientific mission at Timmins: EUSO-Balloon - 8/31/2014


Timmins, Ontario.- The first balloon mission strictly made for scientific purposes since the inception of the Stratos program and the establishment of the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base was carried out in August 24, as part of Strato Science 2014, the first scientific campaign at the new facility.

The mission nomenclated following the convention established for the campaign as NIMBUS-2 was performed using a french-built stratospheric balloon with a volume of 400.000 m3 achieving a total flight time of more than 8 hours.

View of the EUSO-balloon gondola at the integration building in Timmins (image: Etienne Parizot)The payload flown was an instrument denominated EUSO (Extreme Universe Space Observatory) - Balloon which is an exploratory mission of JEM-EUSO, a future space telescope to be installed in 2017 in the Japanese Experiment Module of the International Space Station. The purpose of JEM-EUSO is to identify the astrophysical nature and origin of high energy cosmic rays. These are the most energetic particles known in the universe, reaching energies near 1020 eV (60 Joules), whose origin is still uncertain. The method to be used for detecting these particles is to observe the trail of fluorescence denominated Extensive Air Showers (EAS) which is left when the cosmic rays collide with other particles in earth's atmosphere.

The mission is part of a multinational project involving more than 340 scientists from 86 institutes of 16 different countries.

The balloon payload that took part in the recent flight was developed mainly by the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie of France, with the collaboration of several teams from other countries whom are part of the entire community of the JEM-EUSO effort. The instrument itself is composed by a single photon detection module (PDM) coupled to an optical system made of three Fresnel lenses that represents a scaled down configuration using real prototypes of the system to be installed onboard the ISS.

The system is allocated inside a gondola specialy designed and built for the project by the balloon division of the French space agency CNES. At left we can see an image of this gondola while being readied for flight at the integration building in the Timmins base. It count with two compartments: the bottom half (in red in the picture) is where are installed the detector unit, the lenses and the infrared camera, while the top part houses all the electronics of the instrument.

The size of the full structure is 2.7 meters of width by 3.8 meters of height, including the circular legs made of aluminum aimed to absorb the impact of a rough landing. The total mass with the instrument installed is around 400 kg.

As the gondola was designed taking account of a possible landing at sea, both compartments are waterproof. Also to prevent the sinking of the structure polystyrene floaters (in white in the picture) were added at the top half. Besides the fact that was not expected a landing at sea for this campaign, future plans for EUSO-balloon contemplate a possible flight from Aire Sur L'Adour in 2016 with recovery from the sea. Nevertheless, this measure proved to be more than adequate taking account of the myriad of lakes, marshes and wetlands that populates the flight zone of the balloon, and as we will see, given the circumstances of how the mission ended.

In addition to the full-scale end-to-end test of the JEM-EUSO detection technique, other scientific goals of the flight were the experimental determination of the effective UV background below 40 km, the test of the ground based calibration system, the measurement of the background "noise" both natural and man-made and lucky enough, the obtention of the first UV-image of Extensive Air Showers looking down on the Earth's atmosphere. To achieve these goals, several flight conditions had to be meet: the observation period should be at least 3 hours, the flight had to take place at night with less than a quarter of the full moon in the sky, and partially overflying zones of intense artificial illumination like cities or industrial areas.

View of the inflation of the 400z balloon at Timmins (image copyright: CNES)

After several weeks of hard labour, the instrument was ready to flight. So based on the flight requirements and the weather forecasts, the first launch attempt was initially planned for the evening of August 23. The scientific team was anxious to take the first launch opportunity as the next days showed a considerable deterioration of the weather, which was a constant since the begining of the campaign. First complication arose during the afternoon with the discovery of a defective iridium modem in the back-up chain of the CNES communication system. However, the problem was fixed and the preparations continued, but then, when the payload was ready to be taken to the launch field, the CNES team found that a battery of the Nacelle Envelope (which helps to track and locate the balloon after separation from the payload) was depleted. With no spare at hand, it was decided to move the launch to the next day.

In the afternoon of August 24, the pre-launch sequence commenced again but this time all functioned perfectly, and while the last rays of the fading sun illuminated the scene at the Victor M. Power airport, the EUSO-Balloon gondola was transported to the launch pad, and attached to the two tetrahedral auxiliary balloons that would hold the payload at launch. A few minutes later the inflation of the main balloon started, and at 20:54 local time (corresponding to 00:54 on August 25 according to UTC time) it was launched. The ascent phase was completed flawlessly and soon balloon and payload were floating 40 km above Ontario.

Aerial View of the gondola floating in the lake (image copyright: Euso Balloon team) As soon as the balloon was launched, part of the scientific team of the project departed from the base onboard an helicopter equipped to perform an important task during the flight: to follow the balloon from below first firing it with an up-looking specially calibrated UV flash lamp, and later shooting several pulsed laser beams across the field of view of the instrument, to see if the light scattered out of the beam to the detector. Meanwhile in the Timmins base, the rest of the team was enjoying the images of the "first light" seen by the instrument as it was flying over Timmins.

As the night passed and the scientific objectives were acomplished, it was time for CNES to seek a good place to land the payload. During the entire trip, the balloon moved near 100 kms to the west of the launch base, to the Algoma district. After selecting an adecquate site to land the separation command was transmitted at 4:20 local time on August 25 (8:20 utc) and the payload started it's way down. Due to the different directions and speed of the wind encountered in different layers during the descent, instead of landing on the ground, EUSO came to rest in the middle of a small unnamed lake located 20 km NE of the small community of Elsas. At right can be seen an aerial view of the EUSO and service gondolas floating in the center of the lake.

Next day three members of the EUSO team along with staff of the Canadian Space Agency and guides well acquainted with the zone were deployed to the area of the landing. Once there, the instrument was extracted from the lake by the recovery helicopter and deposited in a nearby road, where it was examinated by the scientists for they relief as it was found in perfect shape and dry, even the portion of the instrument that was under the water. That same day where also recovered the balloon envelope and the operative gondola which landed in dry soil.

In all this first scientific mission was a sound success, as the performance of the instrument was as expected and the Stratos program gained invaluable experience for future flights at Timmins.

We need to mention the excellent coverage made during the previous days and flight by Etienne Parizot one of the scientists of EUSO and the students of the project throught their tumblr account.

Stay tuned, as more flight will be performed at Timmins during September.


Japan returns to stratospheric flight with BOV - 8/25/2014


Taiki, Japan.- This August will enter into the history of the recent scientific ballooning as one of the busiest in last years, with three major balloon campaigns ocurring at the same time in three points of the north hemisphere: the NASA fall campaign at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, the Strato Science 2014 campaign between France and Canada in Timmins, Ontario, and since yesterday the yearly balloon launch effort of the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) at the Taiki Aerospace Research Field in Hokkaido Island, Japan.

And certainly, the mission performed not only signaled the start of the campaign but also marked the return to fly of the Japan balloon program after a hiatus of 14 months. More on this later.

A B300 model balloon with a volume of 300.000 m3 and a diameter -fully inflated- of 90 meters was used to lift a rocket-shaped yellow-painted device denominated BOV (Balloon-based Operation Vehicle) an experiment to achieve up to 30 seconds of microgravity during free-fall, developed by JAXA.

Under these lines we can see the moment on which both, the balloon platform and the payload launcher are extracted from the hangar at Taiki to the final launch position.

View of the inflation of the B300 balloon at Taiki (image copyright: ISAS/JAXA)
The balloon was launched at 4:27 Japan Standard Time (JST) and ascended at an average speed of 300 meters per second. It Displaced eastward during 2 hours and 35 minutes, the balloon reached floating altitude of 38.6 km at a distance of 40 km from the Taiki shore. After a few minutes of leveled flight exactly at 7:12 JST a signal was transmited from ground control and the BOV was separated from the balloon starting the free-fall phase.

Exactly 5 minutes after the drop at 7:17 JST, the balloon was terminated and fell to the ocean, meanwhile BOV was descending under his parachute for a gently landing in the Pacific Ocean waters in a point located 35 kms east from Taiki coast. The recovery ship was in the area and by 9:00 JST it picked up the test vehicle and the balloon and returned them to port, and from there BOV was returned to Taiki airfield in helicopter.

Comparison of the module used in BOV-4 (left) and the current model (right) based on a microgravity module from a TEXUS rocket (image copyright: Takehiko Ishikawa) As we mentioned before, this mission nomenclated B14-01 was the first one to be conducted in Taiki since last September. As we then informed, during the launch attempt of the fourth flight of the year 2013 campaign (meant to launch the same microgravity experiment performed yesterday) at the moment of the release the balloon detached from the payload, forcing to abort the launch. The collapsed balloon landed inside the terrain of the Taiki base, over a power transmission line. An investigation was initiated to trace the origin of the failure, but as it was taking more time than expected, the launch of the experiment was delayed. In August was announced that the restriction will be maintained for larger balloons but lifted for the smaller ones, which allowed ISAS/JAXA to launch the balloon that claimed the world altitude record in September.

The BOV system flown on this last mission, performed a combustion experiment in microgravity and was modified from the previous model (BOV-4 flown in 2009) so that a much larger microgravity experiment system can be accommodated as we can see in the image at right.

The experimental module was similar to the one used in microgravity experiments onboard the TEXUS sounding rocket. Due to it's size and shape, three dimensional drag free control was not possible. Therefore, in the modified BOV the experiment section is connected to the vehicle with a linear slider so that the microgravity module section is freely moved along the vertical axis.

BOV is an evolutionary project that since it's inception contemplated differents stages of development to achieve microgravity. Recently the project was splitted in two different and independent branches: the unpowered one that we mentioned here exclusivelly devoted to microgravity studies and a larger version of the same vehicle which has the addition of wings and a propulsor called "S-Engine". This later vehicle is also dropped from an altitude of 30-40 km from a stratospheric balloon and after 40 seconds of free-fall, it pulls up and the engine operates for 30 seconds up to a speed of Mach 1.8. Thank you so much to Prof. Takehiko Ishikawa P.I. of the BOV project, that provided us with this information and pictures.

Back to the campaign at Taiki, other two experiments would be launched in these days: mission B14-02 a high altitude flight test of a exploration airplane to be used in future missions in Mars and B14-03 to evaluate the flight performance of a super-pressure balloon, with a new net-based coating.

Stay tuned !


First scientific balloon launch campaign at Timmins starting - 8/23/2014


Timmins, Ontario.- The first scientific balloon launch campaign carried out at the brand new Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base in Ontario, Canada started succesfuly last week.

Althought in 2013 were performed there two launches, the present campaign is the first one to include scientific payloads in the flights. The effort received the name of Strato Science 2014.

During the campaign, that will be carried out between August and September by the Centre national d'études spatiales -CNES- and the Canadian Space Agency -CSA- will be launched eight balloons ranging from 100.000 m3 to 800.000 m3 of volume, which will transport in all 23 experiments, 15 from European countries and 7 from Canada. Also during the flights is expected to perform several testings and validations of new systems, procedures and materials.

The base will host along these two months more than 100 researchers from Canada and Europe plus the staff personnel from both agencies that will assist in the balloon launches and recoveries. The entire campaign will be under the direction of Stéphane Louvel from CNES who was assigned as Mission Chief.

The setup of the base to be fully operational started in late July, with the conditioning of the terrain, some general cleaning and improvementsa to the different buildings (addition of S-Band and GPS antennas, etc.). Then, in early August arrived more than 15 sea containers on which were transported from Europe the support equipment, the first scientific platforms, the gas trailers for balloon inflation and personal effects of the European staff that will spend several weeks at the base.

The operational teams arrived at Timmins on August 12, signaling the official start of the campaign. They were received by rain and also by colder temperatures than expected for this time of the year, which led to some worries about the normal development of the launch campaign.

View of the BANA gondola used in the first balloon launch of the Timmins campaign (image: CNES)Almost immediately started the process of unloading the containers, with the mandatory analysis of the impact sensors installed in each one to know if the content suffered any unusual impact during transport. This is fundamental to assess any potential damage to the delicate instruments transported. Other tasks included the installation of the work areas (assembly, preparation of experiments and flight trains), the activation of electrical and computer networks, the replacement of defective equipment and the preparation of the launch vehicle.

Other personnel was in charge of additional training of some of the staff, the supervision of the general safety of the base (including the handling of hazardous materials) and the contact with air authorities, medical care system and other support services.

As allways occurs in any balloon launch campaign carried out by CNES Balloon Division, the first mission is devoted to perform an end to end test of all the systems (both airborne and ground) to be used in the rest of the campaign. This is what they call the "Opening Flight". Despite the not so much cooperative weather the previous week, the launch date for this flight was set for early in the morning on August 21. Fortunately at the moment to take the "Go/No-Go" decision, there was no rain in the area, and the forecast was promising so at 1:45 local time was decided to go ahead with the preparations for the launch.

This first flight carried a technological gondola called BANA (which can be seen in the image left above) on which were mounted several smaller payloads and systems, including a Canadian experiment, one of the seven that will take part of the balloon missions of the campaign. The gondola was placed on the airstrip of the Victor M. Power airport, on which the base is located and attached to the auxiliary tetrahedral balloons used by the French agency to hold the payloads at launch. Later, CNES staff deployed on the ground the balloon to be used in the mission: a model 100Z with a volume of 100.000 m3. This particular balloon, manufactured by ZODIAC, used a new polyethylene resin that will undergo a on-flight qualification test in this mission.

Below these lines there is a picture of the 100Z minutes before release.

View of the inflation of the 100Z balloon at Timmins (image copyright: Euso Balloon team)

The balloon was finally launched at 5:34 local time (9.34 utc) and after performing a nominal climbing it reached succesfuly the intended float altitude. The flight developed without trouble, with only minor altitude excursions probably due to the temperatures of the air masses the balloon traversed, along a flight path that took it to the vicinity of the city of Chapleau, Ontario where it was terminated after 8 hours of flight.

Althought the previsions taken at the time of the separation of the payload, the BANA gondola landed in a terrain more wet than expected and suffered some damage as the different systems where located in compartments that were not water proof. Thus, some elements were exposed to the accumulated rainfall of the previous days. After returning to the base a more deep examination will allow the CNES technicians to know the dimension of the damage.

Despite how small this incident was, the higher than expected moisture of the terrain along with the miryad of lakes in the general flight zone, will force CNES to improve the water tightening and insulation on the upcoming experiments of the campaign, something that the agency have been studied and it was within the possibilities during the implementation of the NOSYCA system in the previous campaign in 2013.

Next mission to be launched in a few days will be EUSO-BALLOON. Stay tuned!.


Second launch of NASA's fall scientific balloon campaign - 8/20/2014


Fort Sumner, New Mexico.- The second mission of the Fall scientific balloon launch campaign was launched on August 18 by personnel of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility. The flight was carried out from the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility which is the main base to launch balloons for NASA in the United States. The facility is located inside the terrain of the Municipal Airport in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

View of the HYSICS/WASP experiment platform just before the launch (image: NASA) The mission, nomenclated as flight 650N was aimed to launch an instrument developed by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics of the University of Colorado at Boulder, called HySICS (HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science) which was designed to acquire extremely accurate radiometric measurements of Earth relative to the incident sunlight.

The project, funded by a $4.7 million contract awarded by NASA's Earth Science Technology Office under his Instrument Incubator Program, can tell scientists about changes in land-use, vegetation, urban landscape use, and atmospheric conditions on our planet. Such long-term information can then help them to identify the drivers of climate change.

HySICS was the first experiment ready for launch during the campaign, but as it should use the biggest balloon currently available the flight requeriments for it -specially regarding the low level winds- were much more exigent than the other mission also ready to flight. Hence, it took the first launch opportunity on August 7, but due to winds that never decreased speed during preparations the attempt was finally cancelled at the last minute. A second launch chance for HySICS was forecasted for the next morning but was scrubbed too due to low level winds unfavorable and some rain in the area. At this point, decision was made to launch in the first time the HASP experiment on August 9th (see details in our past update).

Two more attempts to launch HySICS the next week also ended in cancellations. Finally the third attempt on August 18th, would result the right one. Early in the morning all was set in the launch field. The "Big Bill" vehicle took the payload to the end of the East Launch area of the base while the CSBF staff prepared the ground clothes used to avoid to damage the balloon on the ground. When the first rays of the sun appeared above the horizon, the launch seemed to be imminent, but suddenly, all personnel disappeared from the scene in a move typical of a "weather hold": they were waiting for last minute forecasts to take the Go/No Go decision.

Near one hour passed without any signs of activity when finally around 14:30 utc, CSBF people showed up again and started to inflate the balloon. The process was completed one hour later and at 15:34 utc the balloon was released. It ascended on a flight pattern quite similar to the one followed by HASP in the first flight of the campaign, and reached float altitude of 122.000 ft at 17:50 utc moving westward at 50 knots per hour.

View of the HYSICS/WASP balloon at 124.144 ft. The picture was taken near Ruidoso (NM) (image copyright: David Tremblay)
The image above was obtained once the balloon reached the maximum altitude, by our good friend David L. Tremblay (whom we like to call "the balloon hunter") from his home in Alto (NM) at a distance of 115 miles of the balloon. The image is part of a series published by Tremblay in his website.

HySICS maintained the same heading during the entire flight but on the last three hours of the journey, it started to lose altitude steadily as it approached an area with heavy cloud cover located in east Arizona. We don't know if that was a premeditated maneuver made by the CSBF team valving gas or it was the result of the presence of the cloud deck below. The balloon crossed the state line at 23:00 utc moving still westward, but at a speed of 26 knots per hour.

HySICS flying over a stormy Arizona. In the image can be seen how close the cloud deck was (image copyright: NASA)Finally, the mission was terminated at 23:53 utc over east Arizona while floated at an altitude of 105.000 ft. The descent under the parachute lasted 40 minutes and touchdown was southeast of Holbrook (AZ) after a total flight time of 9 hours and 20 minutes.

This was the second flight of HySICS after a first inaugural trip performed from the same launch base in 2013. Both flights were part of the qualification phase of the project aimed to demonstrate the instrument's experimental techniques and acquire sample measurements.

An important part of the mission was carried out by another instrument, as HySICS was "mounted" on WASP (Wallops Arc Second Pointer) a pointing platform with an accuracy and stability down to the arc second, or 1/3,600 of a degree of angular measurement which is being developed by NASA engineers from the Wallops Flight Facility. The main goal of WASP is to become a flexible system able to support a variety of science-provided instruments and sensors to meet specific mission performance requirements.

The pointing system alone was first tested in two engineering flights performed from Fort Sumner in 2011 and 2012. HySICS is the first scientific instrument which WASP worked with, but will not be the last one: during this fall campaign, WASP will be used in another mission, this time coupled with an instrument called OPIS (Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere) intended to gather time measurements of Jupiter's atmospheric structure and to observe a transit of an extrasolar planet and the rotation of an asteroid.

Stay tuned !


Early start for NASA's fall balloon launch campaign - 8/10/2014


View of the HASP multi-experiment platform just before the launch (image: Greg Guzik) Fort Sumner, New Mexico.- The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility -which is the sector in charge of the operations of the NASA balloon program- launched today a stratospheric balloon from the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, thus marking the official start of the agency's Fall balloon launch campaign.

The payload launched belongs to a initiative called HASP (High Altitude Student Platform) designed to carry up to twelve student payloads to an altitude of about 36 kilometers with flight durations of 15 to 20 hours using a small volume, zero pressure balloon.

The payloads carried by HASP are designed and built by students and are used to flight-test compact satellites or prototypes and to fly other small experiments.

The state of Louisiana and the Louisiana Space Consortium have funded the construction and operation of HASP and CSBF through the NASA Balloon Program Office offers the flight opportunity providing launch services and the balloon.

At right we can see an image of the gondola. The experiments are mounted on top of it, while the hollow structure below is where are installed the CSBF hardware. The rectangular container hanging at the bottom is the ballast hopper.

This year's flight included payloads prepared by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Minnesota, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of North Dakota, University of North Florida, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico and the University of Colorado at Boulder. There were plans for include also experiments from two teams from the Arizona State University, but they were not able to complete their payloads before launch.

View of the HASP multi-experiment platform hanging from the arm of the launch vehicle Big Bill before release (image: Greg Guzik)


HASP and the support crew arrived at Ft.Sumner in early August, and started almost immediately the preparations of the experiments to be mounted in the gondola. The compatibility test was held three days later, completing successfully the Flight Readiness Review, and being ready to flight.

However, ahead in the launch row was another payload called HYSICS (HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science) whose goal is to measure outgoing Earth-reflected radiation with unprecedented accuracy. As the flight requeriments for this late experiment were much more exigent (it will use the biggest balloon currently available and thus the winds must be almost "dead calm" at low levels) it took the first launch opportunity. That occured on August 7, but due to winds that never decreased speed during preparations the attempt was finally cancelled at the last minute.

The balloon from mission 649N transporting the HASP payload a few minutes before reaching float altitude of 125.000 ft (image: Greg Guzik) A second launch chance for HYSICS was forecasted for the next morning but was scrubbed too due to low level winds unfavorable and some rain in the area. As the science window for the experiment was closed until late in the month, HASP advanced to the first place in the launch row, hoping to be able to fly on Saturday when a marginal chance was foreseen by CSBF's meteorological staff.

So in Saturday August 9, the preparatives began long before sunrise. After confirming a good forecast for flight, near 13:00 utc was started the balloon inflation, which was completed 20 minutes later.

The balloon was launched as mission 649N at 13:25 utc. In the firsts stages of ascent, it initially moved to the east of the base, but as gained altitude progresively took it's definitive westward route. After reaching a float altitude of 125.000 ft it moved fast mounted in winds peaking up to 60 knots per hour.

At left we can see an image of the balloon when was close to achieve the float altitude. During the entire flight, the onboard cameras transmited superb views from the stratosphere which were available to internet users throught the CSBF channel in USTREAM.

This mission (which was the ninth flight under the HASP initiative) developed flawlessly, and after crossing the state of New Mexico just south of Albuquerque, the balloon and its payload crossed the Arizona border.

The balloon was terminated at 21:17 utc and impacted northeast of the tiny town of Grand Falls, 45 minutes later. Total flight time was of more than 8 hours, with 5 hours and 38 minutes of leveled flight.

In all HASP 2014 was the shortest flight in duration since the inception of the program. This may be due the early date on which occurred the flight (in fact the earliest start date ever for a Fall launch campaign) when the turnaround period was not yet well established.

Stay tuned to more news as the NASA balloon launch campaign in New Mexico is just commencing.


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