Breaking news

  •     6/20/2014 NASA finally cancelled a balloon flight scheduled to be performed at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico in June, to test some components for the Super Pressure Balloon (SPB).
  •     7/7/2014 Japan Space Agency (JAXA) announced that the balloon launch campaign at the Multipurpose Air Park, in Taiki, will be postponed.
  •     The reason is the bad weather conditions. The three experiments planned to fly would be launched in next launch window, between August 21 and September 23.
  •     The payloads include an experiment on microgravity, the test of a sail plane to be used in Mars and a flight test of a superpressure balloon of new design.
  •     Stay tuned to StratoCat your number one source of information on worldwide scientific ballooning. Find us on twitter at @Stratoballoon.

NASA will launch balloons from New Zealand to South America - 7/11/2014

Wanaka, New Zealand.- Three representatives from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, visited this week the town of Wanaka in the Otago region of the South Island of New Zealand, to discuss with the local airport authorities the logistics needed to perform stratospheric balloon launches there, starting in 2015.

View of the entrance of the Wanaka airport The objective is to use the facilities of the airport - located 5 miles East of the town- as the starting point for long duration balloon missions which could cross the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, performing one or two circunnavigations of the world along the 44º south paralel.

In declarations to the Otago Daily Times, Dwayne Orr, CSBF's operations manager said that "...Wanaka gives us that access to a mid-latitude location and also allows us to launch a balloon and stay out of politically sensitive areas in the northern hemisphere...".

Another advantage of this location is that the balloon will traverse over the water the majority of the trip, only crossing over the Patagonian region in Southamerica. This portion of southamerica have in general a low population density, and according to the NASA plans, that could be the region to be choosen to recover the scientific payloads and balloons.

The conversations held at Wanaka this week are aimed to set the scene for next March, when a team of near 20 people from CSBF will arrive at the airport and made a first test flight there.

Teorethical path of the balloons launched from Wanaka - Credit: NASAThis is not the first time that NASA will be launching balloons from the southern hemisphere in long duration flights. In 1973, the National Center for Atmospheric Research conducted a series of balloon flights from Oakey, Australia, performing long duration balloons as part of the developmental phase of the so-called Carrier Balloon, a system aimed to drop in flight instrumented sondes to measure meteorological parameters in remote regions of the Pacific Ocean with no such coverage.

In the same fashion, in late 70's NCAR's scientist Vincent Lally developed a new technique of long duration ballooning using conventional zero pressure balloons denominated RACOON (Radiation Controled Balloon). The concept permited the flight of large, low-cost polyethylene balloons for several weeks at stratospheric altitudes without the need of transport huge amounts of ballast.

The technique was tested in 1980 with three balloons launched from Kourou in French Guinea and later developed in flights performed from Australia in the mid 80's, but not fully exploited.

For the Wanaka flights, NASA is planning to use the SPB (Super Pressure Balloon), formerly known as the ULDB (Ultra Long Duration Balloon), currently in advanced phase of development. That new balloon -which suffered several setbacks and redesigns since it's inception in late 90's- is a technology mature enough, which it's currently on the late state of testing, after several success in a row, and could be ready to fly scientific missions in the next years. Now, with the addition of the opportunity to fly them over the desolated routes of the southern Oceans, the agency could overcome the major constrain that the program allways had: the risk of flying payloads in the range of 1 ton over populated areas.

LDSD balloon launch campaign in Hawaii, completed - 7/8/2014

The balloon ascending after launchover the Pacific Missile Range Facility, in Kauai. Image Credit: ReutersBarking Sands, Kauai.- Finally, with a little help from Paka'a (God of wind in Hawaiian Mythology) NASA was able to perform the flight test of the agency's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) in Kauai, Hawaii.

The test was performed at the first launch opportunity of the second launch window in June 28.

As you may remember from our past updates on the project, the goal of the flight -which is part of a series to be completed next year denominated Supersonic Flight Dynamics Tests or SFDT- was to drop from the stratosphere the LDSD vehicle which powered by a rocket will be fired in a ballistic trajectory reaching a speed of Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound) to simulate an actual orbital reentry operation in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

The final objective was to demonstrate and evaluate the behaviour of two new technologies the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) which is a inflatable Kevlar tube around the vehicle which will act as a ballute creating atmospheric drag to help to slow it down, and the Supersonic Ring-Sail (SSRS) a parachute similar to the one currently used in Mars landings but two times larger.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory along with the NASA balloon launch personnel arrived to Kauai in early April to start preparations of the vehicle and the launch system, which was intended to be flown during the first launch window which spanned from June 3 to June 14. After having no opportunity to launch it during that time due to the fact that prevailing wind would transported the balloon outside the designated test area over the Ocean, the campaign was delayed as the reserved time at PMRF was over. Then on June 24, NASA announced that a new launch window was available at PMRF and the test would take place between 28 June and 3 July.

The first launch opportunity came with a promising weather forecast, so early in the morning preparations began for the launch.

Inflation of the balloon, manufactured by Aerostar and measuring 39.000.000 cubic feet of volume, started around 17:45 utc (7:45 local time), and was completed by 18:40 utc. Once all personnel cleared the launch pad, the balloon was released from the restraining spool at 18:46 utc and after advancing towards the launch tower, the giant bag of helium took the officialy designated LDSD TV-1 (Test Vehicle 1) and both were airborne at 18:47 utc.

Detailed view of the LDSD while ascending. The two arms located on each side of the vehicle contained some sensors to be used by the balloon staff during the flight, before the drop. Image Credit: Reuters

During the first hour of flight and while climbing to the planned altitude of 120.000 ft, the balloon developed a NE flight path. As the balloon ascended the prevailing winds turned it first to the north and then progresivelly acquired the definitive heading to the west, clearing the Kauai western shore and flying over the Pacific Ocean.

Two hours into the flight, the balloon crossed the north tip of Ni'ihau Island and aproached to the designated test area. Once the location of the craft was far enough from ground to assure a landing at sea if something goes wrong with the rocket firing, the JPL Central Control started the checklist for the test and set the drop time to near 21:00 utc.

Aproaching the moment of the truth, authorities of the PMRF finally authorized the drop/firing and exactly at 21:05 utc the TV-1 was dropped from the balloon and a few seconds after, the Star-48 rocket fired. Below these lines we can see a high resolution image of that portion of the flight. Clearly visible in the low left of the picture is the balloon deflating.

The LDSD starting the ballistic flight with the rocket at full throttle. Down at left of the image can be seen the balloon being deflated. Image Credit: CSBF and The Palestine Herald

After the firing, the TV-1 started the ballistic part of the flight, increasing both altitude and speed progresivelly. At T+48 seconds the vehicle reached Mach 2, twelve seconds later scaled up to Mach 3, and finally at T+70 seconds while the rocket burned out, the TV-1 reached it's maximum speed of Mach 4, and an altitude of near 180.000 ft. Then, after a few tense seconds, all the people at the Main Mission Control started cheering as the SAID was deployed flawlessly at T+80 seconds.

The TV cameras in the LIVE broadcast of the event showed the TV-1 outer border with the SIAD inflated when the vehicle started it's way down while the members of the JPL team were tensely waiting the parachute deploying. Finally at T+160 seconds the ring parachute deployed, but this time the cheerings would not last as the video streaming showed which appeared to be an abnormal shape on it. The fact was confirmed by main control in the transmission at T+210 seconds.

From that point on, the LIVE transmission showed alternatively, the now deflated SIAD billowing in the air, and the partially undeployed parachute while the TV-1 descended at 40 meters per second. As a result of the parachute malfunction, the impact of the vehicle with the Ocean surface, which occured 40 minutes after, was harder than expected.

A few hours later, the recovery vessel Kahana reached the impact zone and located the vehicle which was only semi-submerged thanks to the air contained inside the SAID's structure. Two members of the Navy's Explosive Ordinance Disposal team swimed towards it to examinate it and assure that no explosives were live on it.

After that, the TV-1 was lifted aboard and returned to Port Allen, Kauai, on June 29, 2014. The test vehicle hardware, black box data recorder and parachute as well the deflated balloon and gondola were all recovered later in the day.

Hours after its successful engineering flight, the first test vehicle for NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project is lifted aboard the recovery vessel Kahana.Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After the recovery, Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California declared that "The test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives. We have recovered all the vehicle hardware and data recorders and will be able to apply all of the lessons learned from this information to our future flights.".

Ian Clark, principal investigator for LDSD at JPL said that "Because our vehicle flew so well, we had the chance to earn 'extra credit' points with the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator [SIAD]," adding that "All indications are that the SIAD deployed flawlessly, and because of that, we got the opportunity to test the second technology, the enormous supersonic parachute, which is almost a year ahead of schedule.".

In another interview Clark refered to the state of the TV-1 after the test "The vehicle was intact. Even though the chute didn't perform 100% as expected, a device that large back there was still generating a fair amount of drag, so the vehicle may have hit the water going between, say, 20 and 30 miles an hour."

"This flight reminds us why NASA takes on hard technical problems, and why we test - to learn and build the tools we will need for the future of space exploration" said Dorothy Rasco, deputy associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

In a more realistic way, NASA engineer Dan Coatta said that "engineers won't look at the parachute problem from June 28's test as a failure but as a way to learn more and apply that knowledge during future tests", adding that "In a way, that's a more valuable experience for us than if everything had gone exactly according to plan,".

The unfairly unsung contribution of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility

Since the start of the operational phase of the project, we at StratoCat noticed that during the media conference, on articles in newspapers and even during the live media coverage of the operations, NASA almost did not any mention to the labour of thr men of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and their key contribution to the success of the LDSD test. During our live coverage of the event in our Twitter account (@stratoballoon) we mentioned the fact:

Recently, to add a little more balance to this situation the Palestine Herald, local newspaper of the CSBF's hometown of Palestine, Texas, published an article by Mary Rainwater which highlighted their contribution to the project and offered us the opportunity to hear their experiences.

The launch tower built specially for the LDSD project by Foremost of Canada under design of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility. Image Credit: CSBF and The Palestine HeraldIn words of CSBF Site Manager Danny R. J. Ball the LDSD test "was the most technologically challenging and spectacular mission ever carried out in the 50 years that CSBF has been flying balloons,"

"Because the rocket could potentially explode during launch, we couldn't use our normal dynamic launch technique in which we have people relatively close to the payload," Ball said. "We had to develop a new technique involving a 100,000-pound static launch tower and all sorts of new flight train hardware and electronic systems which allowed us to remain at a safe distance from the 8,000-pound rocket during launch".

Ball's words refers to the fact that at the inception of the LDSD project, NASA's safety policies ruled out a conventional dynamic launch to be used in the tests flights. At first there were an idea to build a remote controlled launch vehicle but that concept was discarded in favor of a completely new idea: a tall tower (near 25 meters high) with a lift to bring the payload to the top at a safe height over the launch ground. The payload hangs from an arm about 5 meters long which hold it until the balloon lifts it away. The arm counts with a system to swing to one side to make sure that the payload does not hit the arm. The launch tower does not need anchors or a special type of surface to function. It counts with outriggers and accommodations for ballast to provide the required stability for large balloons and heavy payloads.

All the components of the system are portable and can be transported to other locations, although the launch tower platform is not self propelled, and needs a truck to move it. The tower and the spool vehicle had been built by Foremost an engineering firm from Calgary, Canada.

The CSBF has also developed a new computer simulation system that based on the low level wind data, calculates where the spool vehicle needs to be placed to enable the top of the balloon to rise directly over the launch tower.

Besides the use of the new system for the flights of the LDSD project, it will provide to the balloon program a new and safer method of launching large payloads on balloons as well as hazardous payloads.

Refering to the moment of the launch, which was picture perfect, Ball commented: "When that huge balloon and rocket left the ground, the control rooms erupted in shouts and cheers that sounded like Willie Mays had just homered in the bottom of the ninth inning," he added.

"All of us at CSBF are so proud of our engineers, technicians and meteorologists who supported this project over the last 2 1/2 years." Below these lines can be seen a picture of the CSBF group at the PMRF posing in front of the test vehicle.

The CSBF team that participated in the test of the LDSD in Hawaii. Image Credit: CSBF and The Palestine Herald

Next year, would be performed another two launches also from Barking Sands, Hawaii as part of the project. However for these tests will be used another two models of Test Vehicles currently being built.

Balloon flight test of World View Enterprises in New Mexico - 6/22/2014

Roswell, New Mexico.- World View Enterprises Inc. (WVE) the company from Arizona which entered last year in the ballooning field to offer stratospheric balloon flights for civilian passengers, announced this week that in mid June succesfully performed a scaled test flight of its high-altitude balloon spaceflight system.

The flight took place from the northern end of runway 17/35 of the Roswell Industrial Air Center in southeast New Mexico, on June 18. The balloon pictured below, was launched at 7:45 MT (13:45 utc) and remained aloft more than five hours, peaking a maximum altitude of 120.000 ft. Last year, WVE performed other flights from the same location in Roswell, to test different components of the flight train and the balloons itself.

Tycho Test Flight--Flight Crew Gets Ready for Lift-Off Credit-World View, J. Martin Harris Photography

While was at float altitude, the onboard cameras obtained images of high quality of the view from the stratosphere, similar to the ones that will enjoy the passengers and crew of the future manned flights, which the company are planning to offer starting in 2016.

Once the leveled phase of the flight was over, the top valve of the balloon was activated releasing gas and thus making the entire system to descended until 50.000 ft where the parafoil was deployed to allow the gliding of the payload back to the ground as depicted at right.

Tycho Test Flight--The World View parafoil flying at an altitude of 50,000 ft. Credit-World ViewAccording to WVE, this was a record breaking altitude for a parafoil deployment.

Althought there is no official record sanctioned by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) the other known attempt to use a guided parafoil to recover a balloon gondola was tested by the Balloon Division of the French space agency CNES in two flights performed from ESRANGE in Sweden in 1998 and 1999. In both flights, the parafoil was released from about 32.800 ft., a height clearly below the WVE mark.

The flight served to perform a full flight profile of the future "Voyager" capsule, but whitout the capsule, using a payload on a 1/10 scale. During the mission several essential components were tested including the ground operations segment, the safety of the backup parafoil, obtaining vital information about the behaviour of the remote steering system and the aerodynamics of the parafoil.

The June 18th flight also was the maiden voyage of the "Tycho" vehicle, a reusable commercial craft that will allow to perform experiments in fields including communications, surveillance, remote sensing, first response and micro-sat payload delivery. The long term objective is to provide low-cost access to the near-space environment for researchers, private companies and government agencies alike.

Althought last year, when WVE was presented in society, the company announced that the flights would be launched from the facilities of Spaceport America in New Mexico, currently the plans are changing and the first flights could be performed from Page, Arizona. Two main factors are behind the location change, one of meteorological nature and the other that can be explained in political terms.

On the meteorological side, the area sourrouding the city of Page and specially the Lake Powell its specially suited for ballooning due to particular conditions in the wind regime there. That's the main reason why the National Center of Atmospheric Research performed great number of stratospheric balloon launches in the zone during the 60's decade and even planned to establish a semi-permanent launch base there.

On the other hand, the political leg of the location change decision can be traced back to last April, when the Arizona Governor signed into a law the House Bill 2163 which allows companies to obtain waivers of liability for passengers on commercial spaceflights, in compliance with federal standards in the area. The bill describes potential risks of spaceflight to passengers and sets the terms and conditions of a waiver and is fundamental for the development of a commercial sustainable business around space activities.

The recent flight of the "Tycho" system, opens the door for more tests during the year, and paves the way for the starting of the manned balloon flights in 2016 which WVE already are selling at $ 75.000 per seat.

On a private communication with StratoCat, the company assured us that they will not purchase the balloons to be used for manned flights from third parties. Instead they want to make the balloons themselves as they want to have tight supervision of the production line and quality control of the final product.

Many thanks to Kylie Tray of Kirvin Doak Communications.

LDSD balloon launch campaign in Hawaii, delayed - 6/13/2014

Barking Sands, Kauai.- NASA announced yesterday, that finally will not conduct the flight test of the agency's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) in Kauai, Hawaii, during its designated launch period. The reason is the uncooperative weather that prevented the launch of the giant balloon that would transport the test vehicle over controlled air space in the Pacific Ocean, as the trajectories forecasted were not suitable for the test.

As you may remember from our past updates, the LDSD project test goal is to launch onboard a stratospheric balloon a saucer shaped vehicle which is powered by rockets that once in the stratosphere will be fired in a ballistic trajectory at supersonic speed to simulate a reentry operation in the thin atmosphere of Mars. The final objective is to demonstrate and evaluate the performance of an inflatable braking system denominated Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator and a new kind of parachute known as Supersonic Ring-Sail.

The campaign started officially in June 2, with a press conference held at the PMRF, which was transmitted live by NASA TV. The media briefing counted with the presence of U.S. Navy Capt. Bruce Hay, PMRF Commanding Officer, Mike Gazarik, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology, Mark Adler and Ian Clark, LDSD Project Manager and Principal Investigator. No representative from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (the NASA branch in charge of the balloon launch operations) participated of the media briefing.

Artistic impression of the ballistic portion flight of the LDSD test vehicle in the stratosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

Next day, June 3, was the opening of the launch window for the test but was cancelled due to weather. The same thing would occur in the subsequent planned dates on June 5, 7 and 9. On June 10 NASA announced that the weather forecast for June 11 morning was close, but not within launch parameters and that the mission managers would evaluate latest weather conditions that same morning. Finally they cancelled the launch attempt setting the last chance as planned for June 14.

However, in a press conference held at the PMRF yesterday Mark Adler and Ian Clark, announced that the project's reserved range time at the range would expire Saturday, June 14, and as the weather prediction was also unfavorable for that last day, NASA finally would not be able to perform the test. "We needed the mid-level winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet to take the balloon away from the island. While there were a few days that were very close, none of the days had the proper wind conditions." Althought the team had researched for more than two years the wind conditions at Kauai, which were adecquate to conduct the tests, this season's weather have been unexpected and have caused unacceptable wind conditions to launch the balloon.

Currently, NASA continues to look at options for a future launch window. The team is working with the PMRF and looking at weather conditions predicted for later in the month when another launch window could be possible.

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