Breaking news

  •     6/9/2015 The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project test vehicle was launched yesterday by NASA under a balloon from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai.
  •     The vehicle performed as expected. After droped from the balloon from 120.000 feet, it fired the rocket and accelerated to MACH 4. Once stabilized the SIAD braking system inflated succesfuly.
  •     However, at the moment of the parachute deployment it shreded as ocuured during the first test in June 2014. Now NASA plans to study the addition of a fourth test in 2017.
  •     6/6/2015 ERC campaign is starting in ESRANGE, Sweden. It will flight testing six prototypes of reentry capsules candidates for returning samples from asteroids, comets or Mars in future ESA missions
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat, your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon.

    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.

NASA's Super Pressure Balloon recovered in Australian Outback - 5/20/2015

Bulloo Downs, Australia.- The Super Pressure balloon launched from Wanaka on March 27 that traveled almost the entire world back to Australia, finally was found in southern Queensland.

Workers from a cattle station called Bulloo Downs, located 136 kilometres NE of Tibooburra located the balloon gondola and the parachute resting in a remote area of the station on May 5. Many of them had seen the balloon high in the sky on the morning on April 27, but never imagined that it will finally come to rest there.

Marianne McCarthy, co-manager of the cattle station was amazed by the finding. In a radio interview with Patricia Karvelas hostess of the RN Drive program from Australian Broadcasting Corporation, she explained that "...there was a big white box, probably the size of a cold room I guess, and cameras, and bits and pieces hanging off it..." adding that "...About 250 or 300 metres away, there was a big orange and white - almost like a parachute I guess - material and a whole heap of cables..."

Regarding the balloon -a key objective for NASA to try to figure out what part of it developed the leak and why- she said: "...We found a heap of plastic, sort of 10 kilometres from it - so I am wondering if that has got something to do it with it (...) I don't know how [NASA] are going to get it out of there, because it sort of is in the middle of sand hills in the middle of nowhere - that will be the next exciting part..."

In another part of the interview she mentioned that an astronomer that was following the balloon passed her some GPS coordinates to find it.
The gondola and the parachute on Bullo Downs cattle station (image: Marianne McCarthy)
On the NASA side, the Balloon Program Office offered more details regarding the operations in an article posted in the Wallops Flight Facility website.

According to it, following the flight's conclusion, NASA contracted with a local aviator to fly over the landing site, confirming that the payload and balloon touched down near their predicted landing areas given wind and environmental conditions at the time.

On May 7, some members of a NASA team arrived to Brisbane and rented a crane truck and a flatbed truck, similar to the ones used by the agency for recovery operations in the United States. Then meeting with the rest of the staff of the agency, all proceeded to the recovery location.

"...The outback can be a tough, unforgiving, unapologetic environment to operate in..." said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA's Balloon Program Office Chief who has accompanied past balloon recovery operations in Australia. "...You need to be self-sufficient, you need a lot of logistics, and you need to plan for many different scenarios..."

The balloon envelope seen from the search plane (image: NASA)
The payload and parachute was recovered without major difficulties by the rescue party. But to reach the downed balloon required that local farmers to use a bulldozer to open a path between the road and the landing spot, located near one kilometer away in sandy and hilly terrain. Once there, they recovered film samples that could lead to a clue about the leak's origin, and then striped in pieces the rest of the balloon to be able to extract the entire fabric from the terrain, easily.

A reporter and camera from 9 News were on site with the NASA team, taking record of the recovery effort.

In a more funny side, the news about the recovery led to some confusion in international press: while NASA was extracting the Super Pressure Balloon remains, another balloon mission (see below) was launched from Alice Springs and landed 14 hours later near Longreach, also in Queensland. This lead to some kind of wrong assumption in not so well informed journalists that "balloons crashes every day" in the outback.

Once the recovery effort is completed, all the hardware will be stored in sea containers and shiped back to the United States. "...We will investigate the cause of the leak and apply any lessons learned to future super pressure balloon flights..." said Fairbrother.

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