Breaking news

  •     3/29/2015 NASA is preparing for the upcoming flight test of the two vehicles belonging to the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project this June from Hawaii. Containers already sent.
  •     The Super Pressure Balloon launched from Wanaka last week is moving eastward at 110.000 feet and is aproaching the western shores of southamerica. Could be terminated over Argentina...?
  •     Since early March we are back online. Ohwever, we will be updating the website with news and also we will introduce big changes in the way to access the information contained in StratoCat.
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat, your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon.

NASA succesfuly launched a super pressure balloon from Wanaka - 3/29/2015

Wanaka, New Zealand.- The small town of Wanaka (population 7.000) located in the shore of the lake with the same name, in the Otago region of New Zealand's southern island, lived a singular day on March 27 when finally took place the event that was on everyone's talk since early March: the launch of a stratospheric balloon from NASA.

The event was attended by new zealand's news networks, local authorities and public who gattered at the local airport, or saw it from nearby hills around 8 local time. With a very cooperative weather and a dose of luck, the launch occured around 10.15 AM and was certainly "picture perfect".

Bellow these lines you can see a video posted today on NASA's youtube channel, that offers one of the clearest and beautiful sequences of the event. The reason is the privileged location of their cameras, very close to the launch area, while the rest of the press and public due to security reasons was located 300 meters from there.

The arrival in late Febraury to Wanaka of a team from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF), in charge of launch operations for the NASA balloon program, generated a great impact in town's life. That was evident yesterday both in social networks and local media. As an example, Radio Wanaka an FM local station sent a reporter to the airport and offered their listeners news flashes with updates on what was going on with the launch and how the operations were developed.

The auxiliary balloon helping to unfold the fabric of the super pressure balloon in Wanaka (image: NASA)The launch took place after a delay of several days from the original date of March 15th, due to the passage of the cyclone Pam near New Zealand. This forced to cancell the test, as the meteorological conditions wehere not suitable for the flight and mainly due to the fact that the forecasted route for that days showed a much more northward flight path than expected. This last factor is crucial because being this a long duration mission aimed to peformed a turn of the globe, any deviation from the planned route could take the balloon over more populated zones than the ones that are located along the 42 degrees south parallel.

Operations started quite early with the last adjustments and preparations over the gondola to be launched under the balloon. With a weight of two tonns and a half, the payload was composed mainly by instruments aimed to control and monitor the behaviour of the balloon in flight (cameras, pressure sensors, communication systems) and a lo of ballast to control the altitude of flight. This last element (ballast) is mainly to assure a longer flight duration and allow a more precise (if any) way to control the balloon as the balloon is a closed one, which after reaching the planned float altitude of 110.000 feet, reaches his maximum expansion, maintaining that same altitude and volume unaltered along the entire trip, without being affected by the day/night heating/cooling cycle as do the open balloons.

Once, the last weather news showed good chances for launch, near 18:45 utc, started the deployment of the balloon fabric along the runway. After near one hour of work, at 20.00 utc started the inflation of the auxiliary tow balloon -used to allow a much more smooth deployment of the main balloon as can be seen in the image above- and immediatelly started the inflation of the super pressure balloon itself. Thirty minutes later the tow balloon was detached, which ascending free soon was out of sight to the east. The inflation of the balloon was completed at 20:55 utc, and finally at 21:13 utc it was released from the restraining spool, marking the start of a mission nomenclated as 662NT by NASA.

The slow ascent of the balloon was followed by hundreds in Wanaka and sourroundings, while those that were following the mission via the CSBF channel in UStream, had a nice view of the Otago region through the onboard cameras until the NASA engineers started to follow in detail the critical phase of the unfolding of the balloon while ascending.

Under these lines we can see two different moments of that portion of the flight, at left climbing at 17.000 feet and at right 90 minutes later when it was reached float altitude and was fully expanded at 110.000 feet.

Two different phases of the balloon ascent taken by onboard cameras (image: NASA)

The transmission over internet con tinued during two more hours, but as soon the balloon crossed the eastern shore of the Southern Island and started to croos the Pacific Ocean, it ceased. These kind of live transmissions are very common in flights performed in the continental territory of the United States, as NASA counts with several relay stations that allow to maintain a high speed data link with the balloon at any moment. However, in this case, as soon the balloon was outside the range of the system known as LOS (line of sight), NASA switched the communications link over the two main systems used in long duration missions: the Iridium satellital system and the TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System).

So far, the succesful flight of the super pressure balloon (while writing this the balloon stayed aloft more than 72 hours and covered more than 2000 miles in stable flight) involves several achievements for the agency. In one hand Orbital ATK the new contractor in charge of the operations of the NASA balloon program effective on Febraury 1st, made a debut with the right foot.On the other hand, NASA obtains a new launch site, which according to several sources they are planning to use for transoceanic missions every two years. Finally, the succesful launch and the -so far- good performance of the super pressure balloon, will be a resounding successs for an ambitious project born 15 years ago, which during this time has had its victories, defeats, and harvested detractors and defenders inside and outside NASA's balloon program.

We will be closelly following the development of the mission in following days. The first land crossing would be the next week when the balloon will reach the shores of Chile, and after that will croos over Argentina. As far as we know, Argentinian patagonia is one of the points choosen by the agency in case they decide to take down the balloon early. Stay tuned.

Rats sent to the stratosphere over India - 3/16/2015

Hyderabad, India.- A stratospheric balloon launched last Saturday from the National Balloon Facility located in the outskirts of Hyderabad, India transported three rats to an altitude of 29.5 km under a balloon launched by personnel belonging to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, owner of the installation.

The flight originally planned for late January was acomplished at 5:30 am on the night of March 14th and according to a press release published a few hours ago by the Singaporean newspaper TODAY, the animals survived in good shape the 110 minutes of flight being recovered unharmed.

View of the payload being prepared for the flight at Hyderabad base (image copyright: Lim Seng)
Behind the feat is Lim Seng an entrepreneur from Singapore, founder of In.Genius, a company aimed to develope several technologies including those needed to acomplish Seng's dream: to send a man above 20 kilometers in a stratospheric flight next August, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the country.

According to Seng's words, the recent flight in Hyderabad served to prove the oxygen supply within the capsule, as well the pressurisation and landing system in view of a manned test flight planed for next May, which could be probably launched from Alice Spring, Australia.

The reason why all these flights must be made from foreign territory despite having a strong component of strengthening the national spirit in its goal, is that early this year the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) published an statement in which made public that "there are significant safety and operational concerns if the space balloon were to be launched from Singapore, and hence cannot allow it". Moreover, CAAS added that this position was conveyed to IN.Genius in late 2013.

View of the rats in the capsule recently launched from Hyderabad in a balloon (image copyright: Lim Seng)Lim Seng is now planning several manned tests to intermediate altitudes starting next May as a preparation for the manned mission of August. Althought still is not clear who will be the pilot, at least 20 candidates are in the list, and several of them joined Seng's in his trip to India for the rat's flight.

It's hard to say what chances have the project to succeed. The technology needed to let a human to survive a trip to a harsh and hostile environment like near space, has proven to be extremely complicated and costly. Recents examples could be found in inititatives like Red Bull Stratos and Stratex. Clearly the technology used to maintain alive three rats up there is a good starting point, but there is still a lot of road ahead: way more than you can ride in a few months.

One remarkable thing about this flight, however, is that althought the use of rats and other small animals in balloon-borne missions was very common in the early days of ballooning, there were no more animal flights in the last 50 years. The last time that such a passenger made a stratospheric trip was in the summer of 1962, during a campaign of four flights aimed to study the amount of cosmic rays that they could receive at such altitudes, which was performed from Goose Bay, in Labrador Province, Canada.

World View launches first commercial balloon flight - 3/10/2015

Marana, Arizona.- Last Sunday, World View the Tucson based firm that is offering luxury rides to the stratosphere starting in 2016, performed their first balloon flight in the framework of a commercial contract with NASA's Flight Opportunities program.

View of the payload being prepared for the flight (image copyright: World View)The mission took place from Pinal Airpark, an airport located near Marana, Arizona, where the small balloon measuring 330.000 cubic feet of volume was hand launched. The release was performed using a simple system of rolls and weights holding the bubble of the balloon. This system -often refered as the Hutch-clutch system- allows the handling of small balloons without the need of usin heavy equipment and thus is used for launches at remote sites or involving few people in the process.

The balloon reached a flooat altitude of 105.000 feet, that was maintained for almost two hours. The total mission from launch to termination was close to 4 hours. Once the mission was finished, both elements balloon envelope and payload were recovered by the Wolrd View launc team.

The flight was meant to transport two experiments. The first one was a Cosmic Ray Calorimeter developed by a team of students from Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. This device has been built to detect cosmic rays, that is high-energy particles of astrophysical origin, in the energy range between 1 and 100 GeV.

The second experiment is denominated Planetary Atmosphere Minor Species Sensor (PAMSS) a technological development of the Florida Space Institute in Orlando, based on the principle of infrared intracavity laser absorption spectroscopy, designed to use an infrared quantum cascade laser. PAMMS is a compact system that performs in-situ sampling while achieving effective optical path lengths of hundreds of kilometers for detection of ultra-trace species at parts per trillion levels.

View of the balloon fully inflated in the strip of the Pinal Airpark (image copyright: World View)Both experiments were mounted on the TYCHO 20 platform developed by World View to fly educational and research experiments in their unmanned missions.

This was not the first balloon launch performed by World View in the area: in last Febraury they succesfuly made the descent of an unmmaned payload under a parafoil from 102.200 feet. That mission was launched from the Marana Regional Airport instead.

The Flight Opportunities program is run by the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate and was established in late 2010 to nurture the emerging commercial suborbital industry and help establish a viable commercial suborbital market. NASA buy flights on proven platforms to flight-test space technologies of interest to NASA. They also have ongoing efforts to support commercial capabilities development in the suborbital and small orbital launcher industry through private-public partnerships. World View is the second firm that offered to the program the use of balloon-borne platform. The other player that performed more than eight missions since their incorporation to the program is Near Space Corporation, a firm from Tillamook, Oregon with a long history of partnership with NASA.

New endurance record for Google's Loon balloon - 3/2/2015

A balloon launched on July 15th, 2014 from Tekapo Airfield, in New Zealand was taken down today somewhere in the Argentinian Patagonia, after a record-breaking flight of 187 days aloft. The announcement was published a few hours ago in the Project Loon community page in the Google+ social network.

The balloon was part of the engineering tests that Google is carrying out around the globe as part of their LOON project, an experimental effort carried out in the framework of Google's X projects to create a network of balloons traveling on the troposphere/stratosphere. In the future, the fully developed system could offer access to internet above rural and remote areas and also could help fill coverage gaps or help to connect people in zones affected by disasters.

Since the inception of the program in 2012, the project carried out near 500 balloon missions from several sites in the world including remote areas of the United States, India, Brazil, New Zealand and other countries.

The numbers of the balloon that set the new endurance record are very impressive: it managed to circumnavigate the globe 9 times, suffering temperatures as low as -75ºc (-103º F) and wind speeds as high as 291 km/h, soaring to a maximum height of 21km and drifting over more than a dozen countries across 4 continents.

Below these lines is the flight path followed by the craft. The dotted line marks the last 87 days of navigation.

View of the flight path followed by the LOON project record setting balloon (image copyright: Project LOON)

Having been in the air for just over 3 months, Google's engineers decided to put the balloon down, making a series of altitude changes on its last circumnavigation. This served to test their ability to fly north out of southern latitude bands. The test was successful and they managed to turn up to the Northern tip of Australia where the balloon "mounted" a much slower wind stream going in the opposite direction, sending it lazily back to South America. Finally, they brought it back into its original southern latitude band to swoop in and land in one of their Argentinian recovery zones, located in the low populated patagonia.

Loon's engineers said that recovery operations are now underway to bring the balloon back to the lab so the team can analyze that magnificent specimen and learn as much as possible about what made such long flight duration possible. This achievement is the consequence of a steady and progressive increment in flight capabilities, according to a quite interesting article on the project published today by The Verge. The article states that between March 2014 and January of this year, Loons set a series of duration records, topping out above with the current 187 days. One of the previous record holder was a balloon also launched from New Zealand that endured 134 days aloft, before landing near Longaví, Maule region in Chile last November.

The balloons used in the project are manufactured by Raven Industries Inc, one of the pioneer firms in the field of high altitude balloons in the last 50 years.

Update - 3/3/2015 - the balloon was found

According to a note published today by the Newspaper "El Diario del Fin del Mundo" from Ushuaia, capital city of Tierra del Fuego province in Argentina, a balloon belonging to the Loon project was found on Febraury 27 by a fisherman in a ranch located near a place known as Bella Vista, 110 kilometers SW from Rio Gallegos. The device heavily damaged was handed to the local police in Guer Aike

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