- 3/2/2015 We are back online. 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.
We are back on line ! - 3/2/2015
After an extense hiatus of near three months, StratoCat is back on-line again. In fact we were on-line all this time, but without updating the website. The reason for this will be revealed in the next few weeks, but it is not related to aesthetics or visual changes in nthe website design. The only thing I can say for now is that this will be a huge change in terms of the quality of access to information that StratoCat offers on regards to the scientific ballooning.
Meanwhile we will try to catch up with the big news that we missed while we're out: three launch campaigns, a recovery in the white continent, a manned jump mission that beated the Red Bull Stratos altitude mark, a new balloon record for the Pacific Ocean crossing, recent developments on balloon-based tourism including new players on the field, the new contractor in charge of the NASA balloon program, and so on.
But, let's start with the most recent achievement of Google's project Loon.
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.
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
Timmins balloon launch campaign ended - 9/30/2014
Timmins, Ontario.- With the realization of three of the four remaining balloon flights was completed during September the Strato Science 2014 balloon launch campaign that the French Space Agency (CNES) along with their colleagues of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) performed at the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base in Ontario.
Following the convention adopted by Canadian authorities the first flight of the closing series was nomenclated as mission NIMBUS-5 and used a Zodiac balloon measuring 100.000 m3 of volume. The payload transported onboard was SALOMON-N2 (Spectroscopie d'Absorption Lunaire pour l'Observation des Minoritaires et NOx) an spectrometer which operates in the Ultraviolet and Visible portion of the spectrum (350 ~ 700 nm) built by the Laboratoire de Physique et Chimie de l'Environnement et de l'Espace (LPC2E) in Orléans. It uses the moon as the light source to measure the vertical distribution of species like O3, NO2, NO3, OClO, OBrO as well the extinction coefficient of aerosols beetween 15 and 40 kms. The N2 means that it is an upgraded version used since 2007 of the original SALOMON instrument, flown many times under CNES balloons around the world.
Above these lines we can see the moment of the launch of NIMBUS-5 which took place at 16:53 local time (20:53 utc) on September 12. After a nominal ascent phase the balloon moved eastward until reaching the province of Quebec where the mission was terminated at 1:38 local time. Total flight time was of 8 hours and 45 minutes and the landing site of the payload was localized aproximately 80 km NNW of the city of Amos, in dry soil.
According to the information provided by CNES, the performance of the instrument was as expected, but with some problems. The pointing of the sun for the mission was acquired as planned and the collected profiles are considered very interesting by the scientific teams, but when the experiment switched the pointing to acquire the moon, the pivot was blocked by reason yet no established, thus failing to perform the desired night measurements.
The next mission performed, nomenclated as NIMBUS-6, was carried out two days later on September 14. This time was the turn of another multi-payload mission (same as NIMBUS-3) which carried several instruments onboard, but all with a common scientific scope: to measure the amounts of water vapor in the stratosphere. Hence, the mission was dubbed H2O.
The platform used to mount the instruments was developed by CNES for another experiment (the LPMA/DOAS spectrometer) following their well proven modular structure based on aluminum balls and bars.
Onboard "passengers" were: ELHYSA (Etude de L'Hygromérie Stratosphérique) a frost point hygrometer built by the LMD (Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique) which has been operating since 1987 on balloons and is now under the management of the LPC2E; picoSDLA-H2O (Spectromètre à Diode Laser Accordable) a tuneable diode laser spectrometer designed for in situ measurements of water vapour and methane operated by the University of Reims; an improved version of the ELHYSA hygrometer that is still under qualification phase; the SawfPhy (Surface acoustic wave frost point hygrometer) developed by the LMD; the LOAC (Light Optical Particles Counter) developed by the LPC2E and finally the TSEN air temperature sensor which is operated by the LMD.
Althought the pre-flight operations were performed in windy conditions, at evening (as forecasted) the surface winds slowed down allowing to launch the 400.000 m3 balloon at 18:56 local time (22:56 utc). After a nominal ascent, the craft reached a float altitude of 35 km, but instead maintaining that flight level as occur in most flights, the ground control activated the top valve to start a steady descent as the mission needed to perform the measurements during the descent and with the Sun 18 degrees below the horizon.
Once the scientific part of the mission was completed, the balloon was separated from the payload and both landed at 00:15 local time in dry soil (one more time) 70 km north of Amos, in the Quebec Province.
The following mission (NIMBUS-7) was also a multi-payload flight with French and Canadians experiments mounted onboard CARMEN the brand new platform developed by CNES following the modular principle. This was his second mission, but really it was the first one for this particular piece of hardware as during the qualification phase of the NOSYCA system, held the last year in Timmins, it suffered a rather violent landing from which was not recovered, so it was neccesary to built another unit from the scratch.
The instruments provided by the French side were mainly two: ESTADIUS a daytime stellar sensor, proposed by CNES and the Electronics Module of the PILOT astrophysical experiment developed by the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP).
In turn, the Canadian aportation for the flight were SSCEPC (Single Solar Cell Electrical Power Converter) developed by DPL Science Inc; Xiphos Q7 ATM-III a miniaturized data-processing technology to be qualified for future space use developed by Xiphos Systems Corp; SHOW (Spatial Heterodyne Observation of Water) developed by the York University along with ABB Ltd. and the University of Saskatchewan and finally ALI (Aerosol Limb Imager) and OSIRIS-DM (Optical Spectrograph and InfraRed Imager System Development Model) both developed by the University of Saskatchewan.
The balloon was launched at 1:36 local time on September 19. Althought the main balloon and the payload succesfully got airborne as expected, a minor incident that occured at launch would play a decisive role on the premature campaign's end.
As usual, the auxiliary balloons used to lift the gondola during launch operations a few centimeters from the ground, dettached from the flight train as expected once the main balloon took the full weight of the payload on his own, but instead of falling inside or nearby the launch base, they keep on flying. Thanks to the localization beacon attached to them, was possible to trace the route of one of the balloons that travelled near 1000 km crossing the US border for a final landing in the Ilesboro Island in Maine.
At left can be seen the image of the balloon resting in a wooden area, taken from the information published by the Bangor Daily News on September 28.
Besides that minor incident, the flight developed flawlessly and around 17.00 the NIMBUS-7 mission ended. The CARMEN gondola as well the NOSYCA control payload and the balloon all landed on dry soil at 17:56 local time 70 km NE of Amos Quebec. Total flight time was of 16 hours and 14 minutes.
Althought it was scheduled the realization of a last flight NIMBUS-8, aimed -among other goals- to qualify a new parachute scheme to be used with heavy payloads, the mission was finally cancelled. The decision was taken due to the difficulty of finding a suitable launch window before the end of the campaign and of course, the technical anomaly that we mentioned above with the runaway balloon, that will require further investigation.
To mark the end of Stratos Sciences 2014, before the departure of the members of the technical and scientific teams that still remained in Timmins, CSA offered on Friday September 26 a farewell party which took place at the base.
In all this first scientific campaign was very fruitful for all the parties involved, specially taking account that based on the success of the seven missions performed can be affirmed that the international scientific community re-gained a long needed mid-latidude balloon launch base. Also for both agencies the campaign served to consolidate their strong commitment in the Timmins base project, and to gain a precious experience for the campaigns to come.
JPL-Remote mission at NASA's balloon campaign - 9/14/2014
Fort Sumner, New Mexico.- After a hiatus of 20 days due to the bad meteorological conditions prevailing in southwestern U.S. due to the presence of the tropical storm "Norbert" in the west coast, a new balloon flight of NASA's fall balloon launch campaign was carried out this weekend from the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
The mission was nomenclated as 652n (the "n" meaning a balloon flight launched from other location than Palestine, Texas, the main -but inactive for flights- launch base of the NASA balloon program) and was launched minutes after 15:00 utc on September 13.
After a slow ascent phase, the balloon reached float altitude of 126.000 ft at 17:45 utc and started to move in a northwestward path over the western part of New Mexico. While the balloon moved near the Albuquerque area and the evening approached, the eyes of hundreds of New Mexicans were surprised by the presence in the skies of the region of a bright object, as we can see in one of the many images taken.
The event was followed by several news stations like KOAT, KRQE and KOB4.
The flight continued during the entire night, but as the balloon descended due to the cooling of the helium inside, it assumed a different path this time due to the southwest. This will lead the craft to enter the airspace of Arizona, until at 14:11 utc the payload was separated from the balloon ending the flight.
After 40 minutes of descent under a cargo parachute, the payload landed very close to the interstate border near the unincorporated community of Lupton, Arizona. Total flight time was 23 hours.
This flight -which was the fourth of this year's campaign- transported an experiment called JPL REMOTE which is composed by the MkIV Interferometer, a Fourier Transform Infra-Red Spectrometer, designed and built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1984, that uses the solar occultation technique, whereby solar spectra are measured as the Sun rises or sets, either as a result of the Earth's rotation or as a result of changes in the balloon altitude. The effort was born out of concern that man-made pollutants (e.g. chlorofluorocarbons, aircraft exhaust) might perturb the ozone layer. Since 1989, the MkIV Interferometer has successfully completed 22 balloon flights, mostly from Ft. Sumner.
Stay tuned to this pages and our Twitter account (@stratoballoon) for more information on the NASA balloon campaign which is at its highest point.
At full steam the balloon campaign in Canada - 9/11/2014
Timmins, Ontario.- Two more scientific missions were carried out in the last weeks in the framework of the balloon launch campaign denominated Strato Science 2014. The effort is being carried together by the space agencies from France and Canada, since early August, at the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base in Ontario.
The first mission (nomenclated NIMBUS-3 following the convention of adding the flight number to the word NIMBUS) used a 100Z balloon with a volume of 100.000 m3, and transported an experiment denominated EdS (Effet de Serre) which is french for greenhouse effect. As a matter of fact, EdS was composed not by a unique instrument but several ones, all aimed to study the same scientific area.
The instruments carried were two laser diode spectrometers denominated PicoSDLA that measure gas concentrations (one CH4 and the other CO2) developed by the University of Reims; AIRCORE-Ufi the only not-French instrument, built by the University of Frankfurt in Germany aimed to measure greenhouse gases; a particle counter denominated LOAC developed by the Laboratory of Physics and Chemistry of the Environment and Space (LPC2E) in Orleans; and finally the quartet composed by AIRCORE-HR, that also measures greenhouse effect gases, B-bop that performs Ozone measurements, Sawfphy aimed to trace the water vapour concentration and Tsen to obtain pressure and temperature, all developed under the aegis of the Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory (LMD).
Besides the fact that all these instruments are focused in the same area of atmospheric study (greenhouse effect) another similarity is that they are all candidates to take part of the future STRATEOLE-2 campaign in 2018, to be carried out using smaller superpressure balloons. CNES choose for evaluation purposes a very wise aproach: instead of performing several balloon flights with small balloons, the agency accomodated all the payloads in a single modular platform and used a only mission to test them all. That platform, denominated CASOLBA (CAlibration de cellules SOLaires sur vol BAllon french for Balloon-Borne Solar Cell Calibration) was developed in 1975 by CNES to transport a module containing solar cells to be calibrated to be used in different projects. Now, that gondola was reconverted to serve other tasks, proving once more the ductility of CNES's modular design of balloon platforms.
The balloon was launched at 20:34 local time, a bit later than expected due to the fact that the operations were halted for a while to allow the landing of two airplanes at the Victor M. Power airport, where the base is located. After a nominal ascent, the balloon reached float altitude and once there, the ground control activated the top valve to release some helium and to start a descent to an altitude of 20 km. When the craft reached that flight level, it drifted during 6 hours while making a very slow descent up to slightly above the air security limit of 18 km.
Next morning, when the phase of scientific observations for the flight was completed, the payload was separated from the balloon at 7:35 local time on August 29, landing about 100 km SSW of the city of Val d'Or, in Quebec province. For the first time since the inception of the campaign, both elements came to rest on solid and dry ground. Total flight time was near 11 hours.
The second mission, NIMBUS-4 was performed the following week, and involved also the launch of a multi-instrumented gondola, similar in shape to the one used for EDS flight, as can be seen in the image at right.
The main instrument onboard was MIPAS-B which stands for Michelson Interferometer for Passive Atmospheric Sounding - Balloon. It is an infrared spectrometer developed by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology of the University of the State of Baden-Wuerttemberg, that allows precise limb emission sounding of chemical constituents related to the stratospheric ozone problem and the greenhouse effect.
The measurements made by MIPAS-B are complemented with other two instruments operating in the same gondola: TELIS acronym of TErahertz and submillimeter LImbSounder a three-channel heterodyne spectrometer developed at the Remote Sensing Technology Institute of DLR, and mini-DOAS which means Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy and is an spectrometer that operates in the ultraviolet / visible tange of the spectrum. It is a miniaturized version of the DOAS instrument developed for balloon missions by Heidelberg University.
The combination of these three instruments performing simultaneous measurements from the stratosphere allows to measure at once about 40 ozone, and climate-relevant trace gases. On this regard, a key part of the platform is the pointing and stabilization system of the gondola which was developed by KIT's IMK-ASF and ensures that all three instruments measure the same air mass.
The weight of the full loaded gondola was of 760 kg and for the launch was used a French-built 400z Zodiac balloon measuring 400.000 m3 of volume.
The mission, originally scheduled for September 3, was delayed due to the weather being finally launched on September 7 at 15:19 utc, under windy conditions and -as we can see in the image above- with a cloud-capped sky.
After a flawlessly ascent to float altitude of 40 km, the balloon drifted eastward. At this point and after the sunset it was clearly visible in the evening sky by inhabitants of Swastika, in Ontario, who contacted us by email asking the origin of the strange apparition. The mission developed without troubles along the 19 hours of the flight and termination was executed when the balloon was over the Quebec Province.
Landing occured at 10:08 local time near the city of Senneterre, the same spot of landing of the first balloon launched from Timmins in 2013.
In all, the flight was a sound success in the scientific side as well in the technical side as the mission served also to succesfully test for the first time a new landing configuration using a combination of parachutes measuring 200 m2, coupled to the new NOSYCA control system.
Stay tuned for more news on the campaign. Still are waiting a few more balloon launches at Timmins.
Flight test in the Arctic for the OLIMPO experiment - 9/4/2014
Longyearbyen, Svalbard Islands.-A team from the Department of Physics of the University of Rome, La Sapienza has performed recently a stratospheric balloon flight in the Arctic. The balloon, with a volume of 35.000 m3 was launched from the main runway of the Longyearbyen airport, in the Svalbard archipelago on August 17. After reaching float altitude of 37 km it traveled around the north pole until termination which was carried out 8 days later.
The objective of the flight was to test a new telemetry and flight control system specially designed for the OLIMPO project.
OLIMPO stands for Osservatorio nel Lontano Infrarosso Montato su Pallone Orientabile, (italian for Steerable Balloon-Borne Far-Infrared Observatory) and is an experiment devoted to perform cosmological and astrophysical surveys in the milimeter and sub-milimeter range. The experiment will be launched in the near future from that same spot at Longyearbyen in a polar long duration balloon mission, and a couple of years later from Antarctica.
The payload of the balloon launched in last August, which we can see while ascending in the image, included an advanced on-board computer, the telemetry system Iridium-pilot modified for the operation in stratospheric balloons and other subsystems of the OLIMPO experiment. The entire platform -which was powered using a solar panel array- had a total weight of 39 kg.
The hardware of the future OLIMPO experiment consists of a large (2.6m diameter) milimeter/sub-milimeter telescope with scanning capabilities, coupled to a multifrequency array of bolometers and a precision attitude control system. It's main objective is to obtain sensitive maps of the mm/sub-mm sky in high resolution, with optimal frequency coverage for the detection of the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect, the determination of Galaxies Cluster parameters and control of foreground/background contamination.
Both the pointing system and the cryogenic system of OLIMPO are built on the experience gained with the BOOMERanG experiment, which performed several long duration balloon flights in Antarctica in 1998 and 2003 that produced groundbreaking discoveries regarding the Cosmic microwave background radiation.
OLIMPO is an Italian programme funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and led by Silvia Masi of the Department of Physics of the Universita di Roma "La Sapienza" along with a international collaboration participating in several elements of the instruments and scientific exchange. The launch of the future polar flight will be also managed by the Univerity of Rome under contract with ASI.
Technical flight at NASA's balloon campaign - 9/1/2014
Fort Sumner, New Mexico.- Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility launched on August 24 the third balloon of the NASA's fall campaign that the agency is developing since early August from the installations of the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility located in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
The payload onboard mission 651N was composed of several technical devices and systems related to long duration balloon missions, as well a NASA experiment called E-MIST (Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere) aimed to understand how spore-forming bacteria, commonly-found in spacecraft assembly facilities, can survive in a harsh space-like environment.
The balloon was launched at 13:55 utc and after ascending flawlesly and slowly during the next 2 hours and a half, it reached it's float altitude of 123.000 ft at 16:23 utc.
As occured in the previous flights of the campaign, our good friend David L. Tremblay (a.k.a. "the balloon hunter") obtained several images of the balloon from his home in Alto (NM), this time a little closer "merely" at a distance distance of 80 miles of the balloon. The composite image show the balloon expanding as it gain altitude from 80.000 ft at left to the final altitude of 123.000 ft at right. The full series and the previous one are published by Tremblay in his website.
The balloon moved in a southwest course at an average speed of 40 knots/hour during most of the flight. At 19:42 utc it crossed over the Rio Grande just south of the city of Socorro, and 20 minutes later the payload was separated from the balloon minutes before 20:00 utc.
The impressive landing calculation made by CSBF led the payload to rest in the valley just between Mt. Wittington and South Baldy mountain in Socorro County. Total flight time was 6 hours 30 minutes.
Next mission of the campaign will be devoted to the experience JPL Remote whose main instrument is the MkIV Interferometer, a Fourier Transform Infra-Red Spectrometer, designed and built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1984, to remotely sense the composition of the Earth's atmosphere by the technique of solar absorption spectrometry. This will be it's flight number 23 since the inaugural flight also at Ft.Sumner in 1989.
Stay tuned !