- 11/4/2013 Finally after two months of continous work behind the scenes we are presenting the new graphic version of StratoCat
- A brand new logo and an improved and wider image in all the sections of the website, along with a better organization of the contents, and new sharing options on each page.
US Government shutdown forces to cancel Antarctic balloon campaign - 11/1/2013
During the first 17 days of October, the Government of the United States experienced the so called "shutdown" which in short can be defined as the process the Executive Branch must enter into, when the Congress creates a "funding gap" by choosing not to or failing to pass legislation funding government operations and agencies.
Besides the well known problems generated by this situation in the daily lives of people, it affected in many forms the normal agenda of several Federal agencies, including NASA and it's balloon program.
On regarding the fall balloon launch campaign at Ft. Sumner, as the shutdown was effective since midnight September 30th -when the campaign was already completed- it's impact was minor affecting only some tasks related to the return of some pieces of equipment back to Wallops Flight Facility. However, for the upcoming Antarctic long duration balloon launch campaign which each year between December and January performs two or three flights around the pole, the situation was devastating.
The time of the year on which the "shutdown" occured had a central impact on the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF): by the moment on which the critical situation declared, the program was starting the deployment operations of the scientific teams that would take part of the summer research campaign. The uncertainty about the duration of the "shutdown" forced USAP to announce that they were entering in the so called "caretake" mode: keeping its three Antarctic research stations (McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott and Palmer) open under rules designed to protect human lives and US government property.
Once the situation was partially resolved, NSF began examining the planned research schedule to see how much could still be accomplished by the end of the field season, in February of 2014, while simultaneously ramping back up the complex logistical framework needed to support the science. As a result NSF announced in a press release issued on October 28 that has been decided to cancel the support for a field camp on Mt. Erebus active volcano; a field camp for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide project; an over-ice traverse to support portions of the Whillians Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) Project and most of the support for NASA's Long-Duration Balloon facility.
This season three missions were planned to be performed, BACCUS (Boron And Carbon Cosmic rays in the Upper Stratosphere) an experiment designed to investigate the source, propagation and acceleration mechanism of high-energy cosmic-ray nuclei by directly measuring their energy and charge; SPIDER, a balloon-borne instrument to map the polarization of the millimeter-wave sky with degree angular resolution and a technological test of the Super Pressure Balloon (SPB) being developed by NASA since mid 90's and which was rescheduled for the Antarctic campaign from it's originally planned launch date of June 2013 from ESRANGE, Sweden.
When the budgetary crisis finally ceased BACCUS and SPIDER were already in New Zealand waiting to make the final crossing to the ice. Now that the missions were cancelled the scientific teams have to afford the costs of a year of storage there totake part of the 2014/2015 camapign or the return of the equipment to the United States. On regard the SPB mission according to several sources NASA is studying some alternative launch scenarios including making it from Sweden or from a new site under study in New Zealand, among other options.
This is the second time since the inception of the Antarctic balloon program that no balloons were launched during a season, but is the first time on which this kind of situation affects directly the balloon program. In April 2011, a similar situation almost grounded the last flight of the X-Ray telescope HERO (now reincarnated in HEROES) which was waiting to be launched from Alice Springs in Australia, but then the "shutdown" was avoided. This time, however the consequences may be of greater impact for the long duration balloon program which counts with a limited launch capability each year. This will force to reschedule the planned launches in the immediate future.
Closer to balloon-based space tourism - 10/26/2013
A new player in the field and a key strategic alliance were the two more recent outstanding milestones for the future balloon-based space tourism sector.
Last week, thank's to the heads up of our good friend Gregory Kennedy, we realized the existence of a new contender in the race to set foot in the field of the balloon-based space tourism. The Tucson-based company World View Enterprises was presented in society throught a massive media release and the presentation of their website. At a estimated cost of $ 75.000 per seat (in US dollars currency) a crew of up to eight passengers will ride a capsule developed by Paragon Space Development Corporation to an altitude of 30 km. The capsule will be fully pressurized at a near constant pressure and will provide a breathable atmosphere to the passengers, while them enjoy the view of the earth below through several panoramic windows.
According the information that the company provided to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the authorization request process, the propulsion system will be a helium filled stratospheric balloon with a volume of 396,436 cubic meters which will be connected to the capsule by a flight train of suspension cables and a deployed parafoil. Once the target altitude is reached and the flight completed, the capsule will be separated from the balloon. The return ride will include a period of free-fall followed by aerodynamic deceleration as the parafoil becomes progressively more effective for a gentle landing under their own capsule's skids. World View's operations will be based on Spaceport America a recently inaugurated aerospace facility intended to be in the near future the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, which is located close to the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico. According to the statement to the FAA the trajectories of flight will not extend more than 482 km east or west from the launch site and will not overfly foreign territory.
The first flights are expected to commence in three years.
The other milestone is the agreement signed between Zero 2 Infinity (Z2I) a Spanish private aerospace firm that also is developing balloon-based technologies to enable cost-efficient access to near-space, and Space Affairs, one of the world's firm specialised in space tourism, space marketing, and providers of flight and space-related experiences, ranging from a near-space flight in a MIG 29 to witness a Soyuz landing in the Kazakhstan plains.
By this agreement, Space Affairs is offering under it's "near space" activities the future flights to be carried out by the spanish firm.
The effort led by José Mariano López-Urdiales which counts with the support in the balloon launch operations of ISTAR Group, a firm with headquarters in Bend, Oregon (United States), had performed several unmanned balloon tests of scaled-down versions of their system, from locations in Spain.
Clearly, is not far the day of the first stratospheric balloon based tourism flight.
Another succesful BEXUS balloon campaign - 10/11/2013
ESRANGE, Sweden.- Another edition of the yearly student program BEXUS was carried out in the second week of October from the balloon launch facilities of the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) near Kiruna, Sweden.
BEXUS stands for Balloon Experiment for University Students and evolved from merely a flight opportunity using available space in technical flights of the agency to a full fledged independient program that performs two balloon launches each year. From 2002 to 2007 the program was under managment of SSC, and several local colleges and universities related to the aerospace field. Since 2008 BEXUS is realised under a bilateral agency agreement between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB). The Swedish share of the payload has been made available to students from other European countries through a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).
Similar to the HASP (High Altitude Student Payload) effort in the United States, the BEXUS programme allows students from universities and higher education colleges across Europe to carry out scientific and technological experiments on stratospheric research balloons.
The first balloon BEXUS-16 was launched on October 8, 2013 at 8.30 utc. Onboard were installed three experiments: DAEMON a experience of continuous monitoring of the DNA damage due to solar radiation from students from Budapest University of Technology and Economics in Hungary, FLASH a project that aims to transport living human cells into higher parts of our atmosphere to learn about the effects of cosmic radiation on the 3D nanostructure of their genome by the Ruprecht-Karls-University, Julian-Maximilians-University and Max Delbrueck Centrum, from Germany and iSEDE a prototype of an all-inflatable satellite with disaggregated electronics using cellular structures as support for all the subsystems composing a typical nano-satellite developed at the University of Strathclyde, in the United Kingdom.
After a total flight time of near 4 hours at a height close to 27 km, it was terminated over Finland.
Two days later was the turn of BEXUS-17 carrying onboard two experiments: TORMES a experiment to test several elements of a future system that will use GPS signals scattered off the Earth's surface and sensed by an airborne or spaceborne receiver in a bistatic radar geometry, as a means of performing altimetry and scatterometry and ARCADE-R2 a technology demonstrator, whose aim is to prove the feasibility of a small scale docking system, including automatic attitude determination and control capabilities to be applied to automatic aerial unmanned vehicles for mapping, surveillance, inspection and remote observation of hazardous environments that are inaccessible to ground vehicles. These were developed by UPC-Barcelona Tech in Spain and University of Padova in Italy respectivelly.
The balloon was launched on October 10 at 16:12 utc and after a leveled flight at 26.8 km it was terminated also over Finland at 21.20 utc. Total flight time was of 1 hour and 37 minutes.
Last launches for NASA balloon campaign - 10/5/2013
Fort Sumner, NM, USA.- During the last week of September, three balloon launches were performed to complete the Fall launch campaign of NASA's stratospheric balloon program at the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility in Fort Sumner.
The first flight performed was for the High Energy Replicated Optics to Explore the Sun (HEROES) mission. This instrument developed by a collaboration between NASA's Goddard and Marshall Space Flight centers, is based in a previous balloon-borne experiment called High Energy Replicated Optics (HERO) flown several times during the 1990's and 2000's decades. The new incarnation of the hard X-ray telescope is aimed to observe solar flares with 100 times better sensitivity and 50 times more dynamic range than the best solar observations to date.
The HEROES balloon nomenclated as mission 645N was launched on September 21 at 11:50 utc, developing a typical turnaround flight path with litle displacement from the launch base. At the evening it was clearly visible in the sky over eastern New Mexico and Western Texas, and several persons were able to take beautiful pictures of the balloon as the sun was setting.
Next day, after a flight of little more than 26 hours the telescope was separated from the balloon at 14:30 utc, landing undamaged 22 miles NE of Vaughn, New Mexico.
At right an image of the landing place (thanks to Jessica Gasskin).
The next mission in the row was BRRISON or Balloon Rapid Response for ISON which is a development of NASA, the Applied Physics Laboratory of the John Hopkins University (JHU-APL) and the Southwest Research Institute of Boulder, Colorado. As its name implies, the instrument was built to observe the ISON comet which astronomers hope will be the brightest one of the century. The telescope was developed in less than a year, and to save precious developmental time, it used several hardware parts inherited from the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory another balloon-borne instrument developed at JHU-APL wich performed one engineering flight in 2009 over New Mexico and a long duration mission over Antarctica in 2012.
The balloon was launched as mission 646N on September 29 at 00:10 utc time (19:10 local time on September 28) being the first launch performed at afternoon at Fort Sumner base in many years. Under these lines we can see a distant view of the balloon just before release (via @BRRISON).
After a nominal ascent phase, the balloon reached float altitude and while preparing to perform the observations, the 0.8-meter telescope on the gondola returned to a stowed position too rapidly, driving the telescope past a stow latch. The telescope was unable to be redeployed despite numerous attempts by the BRRISON team rendering the mission unable to collect any scientific data.
The balloon was terminated on September 29 at 12:04 utc after a little more than 12 hout of flight. The site of the payload landing was located 21 miles E of the town of Spur in Texas.
That same day and within 13 hours of the BRRISON launch the staff of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility succeeded in launch another balloon. The mission nomenclated as 647N transported an instrument called HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS) developed by Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the Colorado University. The instrument's goal is to acquire extremely accurate radiometric measurements of Earth relative to the incident sunlight. Over time, such measurements can tell scientists about changes in land-use, vegetation, urban landscape use, and atmospheric conditions on our planet. HySICS was mounted on a stabilized gondola currently under development by NASA denominated WASP (Wallops Arc Second Pointer) which can point telescopes on balloon gondolas at inertial targets with arc-second accuracy, will be able to support a variety of science-provided instruments and sensors to meet specific mission performance requirements.
The balloon was launched at 13:39 utc on September 29 and after a total flight time of 8 hours and 34 minutes it was terminated and the payload landed 21 miles south of Wheeler, Texas.
A last instrument remained to be launched during this season campaign: X-CALIBUR, a telescope sensitive to the polarization of high-energy "hard" X-rays built to study black holes and other exotic astronomical objects. The instrument was developed by the Washington University at St. Louis and for this season flight it would be mounted in the pointing structure of InFOCuS, another experiment that was designed and built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and flown several years ago from Ft. Sumner. Sadly, the forecast of a lower than expected float time and the complications that at the time arosed due to the government shutdown (more on this above) made the team to decide to quit from this year's campaign.
Japan sets new balloon altitude record: 53.7 kms - 9/20/2013
Taiki, Japan.- Today, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that they managed to break the current high altitude record for unmanned balloon flight, which stood unbeated during eleven years. The new mark of 53.7 km was achieved by a stratospheric balloon, carrying a payload of 3 kgs, which was launched today from the Taiki Aerospace Research Field, in Hokkaido, north Japan. The mark was confirmed by JAXA using a GPS located at the bottom of the balloon, which measured the altitude in WGS-84 coordinates.
The single-capped balloon was manufactured by JAXA using a ultra thin film of new design that measured only 2.8 micrometers thick. The previous record of 53 km, has been achieved by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (now part of JAXA) using a balloon with a film thickness of 3.4 micrometers thick, in May 23, 2002 at the now closed Sanriku Balloon Center, near Iwate.
The balloon that broke the record had a volume of 80.000 m3 and was launched as mission BS13-08 on September 20th, at 5:22 local time (September 19th at 20:22 according to UTC time). The balloon rose to the record height in 2 hours and 42 minutes. Once the mark was set, the mission was terminated as usual by radiocommand from the operations center of the Taiki base.
This success is the well-deserved reward obtained by the constancy of the technicians of the agency whom finally overcome several difficulties that plagued the five previous failed attempts to break their own mark.
According to the JAXA press release, these balloons will become an excellent tool to transport lightweight payloads to such heights and thus they could be a low-cost alternative to expensive weather rockets like the model MT-135 currently in use to explore the portion of the atmosphere below 60 km.