Breaking news

  •     1/31/2016 - GRIPS, the first balloon mission performed this season from Antarctica which was launched on January 19th from Williams Field airport, near McMurdo station, ended its flight yesterday.
  •     GRIPS was separated from the balloon around 20:50 on January 30, 2016, UTC time. Total flight time was 11 days and 19 hours. Landing site located at 83°6.18 S - 40°54.08 W. East of Pensacola Mountains, Antarctica.
  •     Second instrument which was waiting for launch (STO-2 Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory) was finally not able to be launched due to the huge delay in finding a launch window for GRIPS
  •     Next mission to be launched by NASA balloon program will take place this April, from Wanaka, New Zealand,with another flight of the SPB (Super Pressure Balloon) carrying this time a scientific payload.
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat, your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon

The long silence

As many of you had asked about, I'm writing this to clarify about the long silence of the last months in StratoCat.

No, the website is not down, but growing. Althought there is no much new to see and read here lately, behind the scenes, a new StratoCat is seeing the light. I'm well advanced in the process to adapt the old StratoCat to a new, modern and responsive design, that will make -Or at least I hope so- your experience here more pleasant, specially if you are trying to see the content of the site on your cellphone or tablet.

That means almost to rewrite -in many cases from the scratch- hundred and hundred of pages, and reprogramming many of the scripts that I'm use to extract the information from the main database. That would be a very time-consuming task for a small group of programmers and designers, so think about of just me being the only one behind the keyboard.

So, I begg you a little more patience. May be by the first days of June, the things could be back to normal.

Meanwhile follow me on twitter (Stratocat's account is @Stratoballoon) to get in touch with the latest news of the plastic and helium world.

Thanks a lot...

Luis E. Pacheco, StratoCat's webmaster

GRIPS become the first balloon launch of the year - 1/19/2016

McMurdo, Antarctica.- After seven failed launch attempts since December 27th, a few hours ago, the Gamma-Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar flares was succesfuly launched and while I'm writing this is climbing to it's goal float altitude of 130.000 ft.

The launch operation was carried out by a team from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, from the launch pad located at the Williams Field airport near the McMurdo Station, in Antarctica.

Under these lines are three captures of different moments of the launch obtained from the webcameras located in the high bay buildings.

Against a very uncooperative weather, GRIPS had become not only the first balloon launched in 2016, but also scored the latest launch date for a first mission launched during a summer campaign, since the first stratospheric balloon mission from McMurdo back in 1988.

During the following two days, the GRIPS team, will monitor closely the behaviour of their instrument, before having some rest: indeed, one of the most stressing factors of a scientific balloon campaign is waiting for the right weather. Much more in a harsh and isolated environment like Antarctica.

The flight path of the balloon (nomenclated as mission 668N) can be followed through the CSBF website.

In the following days would be launched the second instrument of the campaign denominated STO (Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory), but as I've said before it will be the main topic of another length post soon.

Stay tuned !

Preparing the launch of two balloons in Antarctica - 1/3/2016

McMurdo, Antarctica.- A new year begins and so, the eyes of the scientific ballooning community are focused on what's going on in the white continent. This summer's NASA balloon launch campaign is meant to perform two long duration flights around the pole, launched as usual by a team from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) using the balloon launch facilities they operate with support of the National Science Foundation in the Williams Field airport near the McMurdo Station.

The first payload to be launched as mission 668N is GRIPS which stands for Gamma-Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar flares. At right we can see an image of the instrument, inside one of the high bay buildings of the Long Duration Balloon camp (via @Calidarien).

This experiment was developed by a collaboration between the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) of the University of California, Berkeley; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Nagoya University from Japan.

The main goal of GRIPS will be to provide a near-optimal combination of high-resolution imaging, spectroscopy, and polarimetry of solar-flare gamma-ray/hard X-ray emissions in the range of energies between ~20 keV to >~10 MeV. GRIPS will help also to answer several questions like what causes the spatial separation between energetic electrons producing hard X-rays and energetic ions producing gamma-ray lines, how anisotropic are the relativistic electrons, and why can they dominate in the solar corona or how do the compositions of accelerated and ambient material vary with space and time.

This will be the maiden flight for GRIPS, althought the original developmental plan of the project contemplated an engineering flight in a short duration flight in the continental United States, which never materialized.

Below these lines can be seen a diagram of the entire instrument integrated to the gondola and with the solar panels attached.

The core of the instrument is the spectrometer/polarimeter which we can see in the image below (via @NDuncanSolar). It is composed of sixteen 3D position-sensitive germanium detectors where each energy deposition of incoming radiation is individually recorded and tracked.

In addition to the primary payload, there are other three piggyback instruments which will be mounted on different parts of the gondola, but all related to the observational subject of GRIPS. Two of them are known as SMASH and TILDAE and were developed at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado and the SSL, at Berkeley respectivelly while an international collaboration between the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, from Brazil and the Complejo Astronomico El Leoncito (CASLEO) from Argentina, developed a prototype of a terahertz photometer system called SOLAR-T.

GRIPS was integrated and tested in August 2015 at the CSBF base of Palestine, Texas and shiped in October to Antarctica. With the arrival of the scientific team to the white continent in early November, was started the long process to get their "toy" flight ready, condition that was achieved in late December. A first launch attempt was carried out on the 27th to no avail due to high speed surface winds. Since then, two other attempts were made with the same result: GRIPS is still on the ground.

A second instrument, is also being prepared to be launched right after GRIPS is airborne, it is denominated STO (Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory), but it will be the main topic of another length post soon.

Meanwhile, you can obtain updated information on the campaign following the twitter accounts of this humble site (@stratoballoon) the official GRIPS account (@GRIPSballoon) as well following Albert Y. Shih (@Calidarien), Hazel Bain (@hazbain) or Nicole Duncan (@NDuncanSolar) all of them members of the GRIPS team currently in Antarctica.

As usual, the balloon trip can be tracked on the CSBF website, where also can be seen live the launch operations through a web streaming service with cameras located near the high bay buildings in Williams Field. This later option however, is only available during ongoing launch preparations.

At the time of writing this, the GRIPS team is looking to a fourth launch attempt which can be occur on January 6th. Stay tuned!

BARREL campaign, this time in the Arctic - 8/23/2015

Kiruna, Sweden.- Is really a very busy summer for the arctic balloon launch base of ESRANGE. After the ERC and D-SEND campaigns, that I've covered in the previous updates below, now was the turn for the BARREL project. However, unlike their predecesors, the guys from Darmouth College are not planning droping anything from the stratosphere. Instead they launched instrumented balloons trying to study Earth's Radiation Belts.

After performing antarctic campaigns in 2013 and 2014, this time the project moved to Sweden to launch their balloons from the almost luxury (if compared with the spartans conditions they faced in the white continent) installations managed by the Swedish Space Corporation. Trying to take full advantage of the "turnaround" period, when the balloons can fly longer times with little displacement from the launch site, the Darmouth team arrived to ESRANGE in early August at the moment on which the team from Vorticity performed the third and last flight of the ERC campaign.

After arrival and unpacking, the preparations of the gondolas was started. Basically each one of them consists of a styrofoam box containing a scintillator counter to measure X-rays, a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field of the Earth and GPS tracker. The main difference with the ones launched from Antarctica in previous campaigns was the lack of solar panels, useless due to the short duration expected for the Sweden flights. Also, some of the flights transported Go-Pro high resolution cameras to take images in flight from the payload, and a magnetometer and an instrument to measure electrons provided by the University of Houston (UH) which was present in the field with a team of undergraduate students.

By August 6th, the first gondolas were ready to perform a launch rehearsal, the compatibility tests to assure they worked well with ESRANGE subsystems, and all security procedures that NASA policy marks. However, a non-cooperative weather difficulted further this step. After working some differences between NASA and ESRANGE regarding operational procedures for balloon launches (BARREL is a NASA-funded project so it must follow their safety and procedural policies as well the ones from ESRANGE) the Darmouth team was forced to perform indoor testing of the equipment. Finally by August 9 all instruments was ready just waiting the first launch opportunity.

First balloon (Payload 3A) was hand-launched at 13:50 UTC (15:50 local time) on August 10th. The flight was a short one due to high upper level winds, but the timing of the launch allowed to capture a near-perfect conjunction with the two Van Allen Probes. And that was another characteristic I've forgot to mention of the campaign: the flights were meant to be coordinated with passes -the so called "conjunctions"- of several orbital experiments that form a wide collaboration in the same study area including the already mentioned Van Allen Probes, NASA's MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale), THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), and Cluster (along with ESA), FIREBIRD II and AeroCube 6 -these last two CubeSat missions- as well as several ground-based instruments that monitored the sky for apparitions of Auroras in the area. As this first balloon headed towards an area with large lakes and mountains it was decided to terminate it at 21:18 UTC to assure the recovery, which was achieved by helicopter the next morning. This would become the shortest flight of the campaign.

The second payload (3B) was launched On August 13th at 4:30 UTC, and a couple of hours later shortly after the balloon reached float altitude, an increase of the geomagnetic activity was detected. The balloon continued its flight and performed another conjunction with the Van Allen Probes until the moment of termination which occured at 17:18 UTC. Onboard was also one of the instruments provided by UH.

Third balloon launch (3C) took place on August 17th at 12:08 utc. This time it moved southward at a slow pace, and after the sunset it started to loss altitude as expected. However, after sunrise the balloon not regained altitude and was finally terminated at 3:33 utc on August 18th. The landing took place in a spot near a road that anticipated a good and easy recovery.

Payload 3D was launched on August 19th at 6:02 utc but moved too far north and after crossing Finland entered in Norway, being terminated before reaching the town of Guovdageaidnu at 12:50 utc.

Fifth balloon (3E) was launched at 7:05 utc on August 21th, it moved initially to the North entering in Finland and then turning back to the south. With the risk of the balloon to reach the Gulf of Bothia the mission was terminated over Finland at 18:37 utc on August 22th, landing near the small settlement of Naasko, and being recovered by helicopter the next day. With a total flight time of more than 35 hours this was the longest flight of the entire campaign.

The last planned balloon flight of the BARREL Arctic expedition was launched at 7:10 utc on August 25, but four hours later it was launched a bonus payload (nomenclated as 3G) using one of the gondolas recovered in the early flights (3C). The first balloon moved north and reached the fiords of the north of Norway, being terminated at 8:25 utc on August 26th, while the second one followed a similar route but was terminated far more to the south that same day at 9:10 utc.

At right can be seen a map showing all the flight paths of the balloons based on the onboard GPS data. Live map is available at the BARREL Science Operations Center (SOC)

In all seven balloons were launched and recovered succesfully. A quite succesful campaign.

Now comes the hard time of start to analyze the data and wait for the results to come. If you want to know more about the BARREL initiative you can't miss their campaign Blog, their science Blog, their home page at Darmouth College and of course you must follow Alexa Halford on Tweeter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ERC campaign performed in ESRANGE - 7/14/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August Update

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

    A big update in StratoCat - 6/21/2015

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Greetings from the south side of the blue ball.

Luis E. Pacheco, webmaster.

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