Breaking news

  •     5/5/2015 The payload and parachute from the balloon launched from Wanaka, New Zealand at the end of the March have been found by farmers in a remote region of the Australian outback in Queensland.
  •     According to the information provided by NASA the balloon also was located 20 miles from the landing spot of the payload. Recovery operations are underway.
  •     4/25/2015 The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project test vehicle to be launched this June by NASA under a balloon arrived to the the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, in a C-5 military cargo plane.
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat, your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon.

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.

Alice Springs base returns to balloon launches - 5/15/2015

Alice Springs, Australia.- It seems that the greatest activity in terms of scientific ballooning during this first half of the year is concentrated in Oceania. After the recent world flight of NASA's superpressure balloon launched from New Zealand in March, now a japanese team from Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) in cooperation with the New South Wales University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) had sent aloft a gamma ray experiment from Alice Springs, Australia. This launch marked the return to activity for the Australian facility after a hiatus of four years.

The instrument onboard the balloon was an experiment called GRAINE acronym for Gamma-Ray Astro-Imager with Nuclear Emulsion, which was developed under a cooperative effort between the universities of Kobe and Nagoya. GRAINE is aimed to observe gamma rays of cosmic origins in the range of energies between 10 MeV and 100GeV using the old fashioned technique of tracing the paths and intensities of the particles that hit the instrument by mean of a block of nuclear emulsions. The instrument incorporates a great detection precision, sensitivity to polarization, a large detecting area and is aimed to be used in long duration balloons.

The balloon to launch the GRAINE instrument from Alice Springs (image: Kobe University)

The balloon was launched (picture above) at 6:33 am Australian Central Standard Time (ACST) on May 12 (21:03 on May 11 according to UTC time) from the runway of the Alice Springs airport were is located the Australian Balloon Launch Station built in part with funds from NASA and managed by the Univerity of New South Wales.

With a still fresh memory of the severe mishap that suffered a NASA balloon being launched at the same spot in 2010, the police put road blocks around the launch area to ensure the safety of the public that assisted. Once at float level of 37 km, the balloon moved northeastward during most of the 14 hours that andured the mission. After the balloon entered Queensland, it was sighted with naked eye by poblators round Longreach.

The payload during a hang test (image: Kobe University) By that hour, several members of the research team were already in Longreach, waiting for the arrival of the balloon. They departed Alice Springs in a chartered flight soon after the balloon reached float altitude. Their primary mission was to locate as soon as possible from the air (using an helicopter) the payload to take it back to Longreach by road.

Moving further north, at 20:22 ACST (10:52 utc) the flight was terminated, and the balloon separated from the 800 kilograms weight egg-shaped payload (which can be seen in the image at left during a hang test before the flight). Both items landed around 40 minutes later in separate spots near Muttaburra, a small grazing town located 130 kilometres north of Longreach.

Recovery operations were fast because "...They have to recover the core detector plates because these have got to be kept cold all the time..." explained Prof. Ravi Sood, launch director of the Australian balloon facility and one of the more prominents figures in scientific ballooning scene in the big island.

"...If you let them warm up to room temperature or above, then it can degrade and the data may not be that good. So they have to be recovered, and transported by road to Sydney University, where there are people waiting to actually develop these plates...", he added to reporters from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This was the second flight for GRAINE. The first flight of the emulsion gamma-ray telescope experiment was performed in 2011 from the Taiki Aerospace Research Facility in northern Japan, to demonstrate the feasibility and performance of this detector in a balloon flight. That was a engineering mission using a small version of GRAINE. During the recent flight in Australia, a full-fledged larger instrument was used, and the main observational target was the Vela pulsar, an astronomical object located near the remnants of a supernova in that constellation which is a well known bright gamma-ray source.

Regarding future balloon launch activities at Alice Springs, in 2017 the French Space Agency CNES is planning to perform a launch campaign there, but still had no announced how many flights or which scientific institutions or instruments will take part of it.

End of an epic journey for NASA's Super Pressure Balloon - 4/30/2015

Queensland, Australia.- In the morning of April 28 I woke up, and followed my daily routine in the last month: I turned up my laptop to see how and where was located that morning the NASA's Super Pressure Balloon that was traveling around the world. But, this time, the up-looking camera mounted in the gondola instead of showing me the big white translucent bottom of the fully inflated balloon, returned me the unmistakable blossom-like image of the parachute used to land the payload. Overnight (for me located in the other side of the world) the mission had been terminated.

Sequence of the termination of the flight obtained via the up-looking cameras onboard (image: NASA)It was an event quite unexpected for those who had closely followed day after day, the development of the flight, specially taking account that the previous day NASA celebrated the first month aloft of the balloon through a press release on which were no indications of an inminnent end of the flight, and even the agency signaled that the balloon will be "...flying northerly for several days before eventually continuing east...". Same occured with another press release issued by Raven / Aerostar, as proud builders of the balloon.

The official word on the cause of the premature ending arrived the same day of the termination, when NASA informed in another communication that "...Controllers detected a leak developing in the balloon and for safety, issued flight termination commands at 11:03 p.m. April 27 EDT (12:33 pm April 28 ESCT) over a remote area near the Queensland and New South Wales border just east of Australia's Sturt National Park...".

The problem with a leak in a superpressure balloon is that it can't sustain anymore the internal pressure so it will progresivelly loss gas and altitude, which in part could be counteracted by daylight heating of the gas or droping ballast, but during merely two or three more days.

At right we can see the last three captures of the onboard camera that watched the balloon night and day during the flight. At top, the last image taken of the fully inflated balloon less than 10 minutes before the termination. In the middle an image of the very moment of the payload separation: under a very bright sun we can see the unfolding parachute in the center of the image and slightly below the gondola cables a bright orb that is the ripped balloon. Finally in the image at the bottom (in fact the last one transmited from the gondola) we can see the parachute 40 minutes after separation, near to touch the ground of the Australian desert.

An unexpected journey

Since departure from Wanaka, New Zealand on March 27 (see my chronicle of the launch on last month's news archive) the balloon maintained an eastward course traversing at a constant altitude between 109.000 and 110.000 feet moving at an average speed of 40 knots per hour. The crossing of the Pacific Ocean took merely 5 days, aproaching the southamerican coast at local noon on April 1st. The balloon reached Chilean territory more southerly than expected over the Katalalixar National Reserve, near Tortel Comune of Aysen region at 16.15 utc, moving then over the Andes mountains and crossing over the Argentinian Province of Santa Cruz during the afternoon, but passing almost unnoticed for the region inhabitants due to the cloud coverage on the zone. A few hours later the balloon crossed the coastal line of Argentina, entering the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Maintaining a steady southeast heading the balloon passed on April 2, North of Malvinas Islands, and two days later on April 4, at 14:30 utc it entered the Indian Ocean, after crossing the meridian of the Cape Agulhas (20º E) about 700 miles south of the Southafrican coast.

During the Indian Ocean traverse the balloon maintained at first a mean speed of 40 knots/hour. By April 5 it crossed 170 miles NW from Crozet Archipelago and the next day passed 450 miles N of Kerguelen Islands, two of the very few land spots that the balloon aproached to, that could be used as a reference in that vast liquid desert. Then, starting on April 7, when it was in a straight route to the East, the balloon loosed speed steadily and also commenced to slowly turn it's flight path. The next day it was definitivelly in a course to the north, and progresivelly caught in an anti-clockwise loop that will endure five days. When the balloon finally acquired speed, on April 13, the course was due southwest heading direct to Antarctica.

Sequence of the shrinking of the balloon experimented when it was overflying a cold storm system over the Indian Ocean (image: NASA) Also at the sunset on that day, while flying over a cold storm system the balloon suffered one of the greatests loss of altitude, reaching the lowest point of the entire trip: 106.100 ft. This descent was accompained obviously by a shrinking in the balloon volume which was very noticeable in the images of the onboard cameras that NASA updated every ten minutes on their website (animation at left). A few minutes later, however, it stoped to sink and rocketed back to 109.000 ft. surely after NASA controllers sent some command to the balloon to drop ballast.

Next day, April 14 at 10:35 utc, the balloon reached the most southern point of the entire flight moving to 58,7337 degrees of south latitude. From that moment on, however, the route was progresivelly turning more eastward and slightly north, moving away from the white continent. The closest distance of the balloon with the Antarctic shores was of 650 miles.

20 days into the mission, with the goal of the first circumnavigation merely 1000 miles away, the balloon started again a turn to the North. As frustrating as can be, it then turned backwards to the west before entering in an almost endessly sequence of loops on which it barely moved, reaching speeds as low as 1 knot/hour. The reason behind that awkward behaviour, in my opinion, was due to a well known condition of the wind currents in the stratosphere that occurs two times a year: the so called "turnaround" period when the zonal winds change direction. This wind regime is very appreciated by scientists whom can fly their balloons and payloads for longer times with minimal displacement. However, in this case, with the double goal of to perform a pair of world turns and to beat a flight record previously established in 54 days, I really doubt that NASA controllers could be happy with the situation.

Aproaching the first month of flight, the situation barely changed, and the balloon started an steady course to the Northeast heading first for Tasmania, and then definitively to Australia. The crossing of the Australian shore occured on ANZAC day west of Cape Otway, 100 miles of Melbourne, first in a tangent path but slowly turning in a course directly to it. This possed a great dilemma for NASA as the balloon was not expected to flight over populated areas. During a few hours the balloon appeared to turn slightly west towards Melbourne. That was the moment when the key question arose: ¿would the agency let the balloon float over such a big city...?. The question hopefully remained unanswered as the balloon finally crossed near 40 miles NW of it and continued travel to the north of the city. However, it will not pass unnoticed. As the sky over the zone started to clear (it was raining since sunrise) the balloon presence mesmerized thousands of Victorians that wondered what was that bright spot in the sky that turned redish at sunset. It was an UFO?. The question created a huge impact on social media and news networks until the moment on which a picture published online by the Victorian Storm Chasers group, settled the question.

The Super Pressure Balloon floating over Victoria (image: Kris J. Parker)

The impressive picture we can see above, was taken by Kris J. Parker over the city of Seymour, and was published by the group in their Facebook page. On that same publication many followers also posted their own pictures of the balloon in the evening sky, so it's worth visiting it.

After that, the balloon moved in the following hours to the north over New South Wales and in April 27 crossed the border of Queensland. Soon after turning west near the border of the two states, NASA controllers discovered the leak and decided to terminate the mission, taking advantage of the desolated landscape and hoping to recover the balloon and payload for a close examination and evaluation.

Total flight time was 32 days, 5 hours and 51 minutes. Below these lines the map of the entire path.

Complete flight path of the NASA super pressure balloon mission (image: NASA)

At risk of being so obvious, and despite the final result of the mission, during the month we watched and closely followed the Super Pressure Balloon mission we assisted to a truly historical event in scientific ballooning history.

There are two main reasons to affirm that:

  1. As far as I know, this is the first time that a super pressure balloon of this size, carrying a payload this weight performed a flight this long at mid-latitudes. This is a fact that could be less relevant for the general public, but it's of paramount importance to the future of balloon-borne science. Just to imagine the amount of scientific data which can be obtained during a flight of merely one month, transporting a pretty sofisticated instrument weighting 1 ton. is worth all the setbacks and troubles the program had.

  2. Put aside the last part of the flight entering Australia (which can be avoided with a more in-deep planning of the launch date I guess) the entire route followed by the balloon is almost risk-free of overflights over populated areas, which is a big concern for NASA. On this regard that region is probably unique in the world.

To add a happy ending to this history, recently -for relief of Wanaka authorities that feared a NASA refusal to continue to launch balloons there- the agency assured that they will be returning to New Zealand next year, but this time with a scientific mission on hands.

Meanwhile they are still sweeping the Australian outback trying to find the remains of the payload and hopefully the downed balloon too.

Stay tuned.

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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