ISTAR group launched balloons from Svalbard - 1/22/2012
Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.- As ocurred the last year, an Italian/US team launched two small stratospheric balloons during the first 2 weeks of January, 2012. The launch site was the Dirigibile Italia research facility, located in the community of Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen Island, the world's northernmost functional public settlement.
The scientific team formed by Paolo de Bernardis and Silvia Masi from the University of Rome La Sapienza along with Steven Peterzen from the ISTAR Group who acted as launch director, was hosted by the Italian National Research Council (CNR) which also supported the operations with a team of three people Fabio Palmieri, Vittorio Tulli, and Emiliano Liberatori along with people from the Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany) whom also provided helium for the balloons and Kings Bay AS which manages the international arctic research station and provided logistics for the operations.
The purpose of the campaign was to test new electronic components and telemetry system designed and built by the Physics department at the University of Rome La Sapienza, to observe, in real time, the polar winter night sky stratospheric wind trajectories for planning future campaigns with heavy lift Long Duration Balloons (LDB) during the polar night and to test new flight hardware developed by ISTAR.
The balloons were manufactured by Near Space Corporation in Tillamook, Oregon, USA and had a volume of 3,791 m3. The payloads dubbed Polar Observation Platform (POP) were similar in both flights and consisted of a battery powered GPS and a transmitter that delivered time, temperature, speed, heading, and altitude using an IRIDIUM platform. Total weight was near 38 kg.
The first launch was performed on January 17 at 18:55 utc. Althought the balloon initially ascended nominally, after reaching an altitude of 15 km it started to loss altitude steadily until landing on a glacier approximately 79º 00' N 15º 22' E. Further investigations are ongoing but the scientific team suspect that the failure was due to the extreme cold (-68º C) and the sheer winds of the troposphere. Recovery of both the balloon and the payload will be made when daylight returns to the far north.
Two days later, on January 19 at 19:26 utc was launched the second balloon. This time the craft succesfuly reached float altitude but for the surprise of the scientific team the balloon turned from a westwardly climb-out to a southern track and continued in a SSE trajectory. The trajectoy was unlike any flight profile experienced in the past 8 years of launching stratospheric balloons from Svalbard. As the winds at altitude were in excess of 80 kms per hour, the balloon crossed Norway and Sweden in 28 hours as can be seen in the map at left (click to enlarge). Upon reaching the Baltic Sea, it was determined best to terminate the flight over Gotland Island, in an area of open fields.
The terminate commands were sent and the balloon separated from the flight train which landed in a lightly forested area of Gotland near the property of a cousin of the launch director, who, along with a friend, simply went and recovered the payload, and take it home to ship it back to the University of Rome La Sapienza, in Italy. According to the ISTAR press release, the payload and flight systems were in perfect condition.
The team will return to Svalbard in May of 2012 for additional testing and again during the winter of 2012 / 2013 to extend the investigation of the polar winter stratospheric winds in preparation for a heavy lift (large payload) winter campaign. For the 2012/2013 winter, they are planning a massive balloon campaign involving up to 15 missions.
At last STO balloon was launched succesfuly - 1/16/2012
Williams Field, McMurdo Station.- This history is centered around an instrument called STO (Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory) designed to pick up the faint, high-frequency radio signals emitted by carbon atoms within interstellar clouds of gas and dust that are found in the Milky Way Galaxy, in what astronomers call the interstellar medium. There is where the clouds of cosmic dust and gas are being ripped apart, where gravity is shoving stuff together to eventually form stars and planets.
If we were to speak in biological terms we could say that the development of this second mission of the current NASA antarctic campaign of stratospheric balloon launches, was -to honor its cosmic object of interest- truly a "labor".
As occured with their colleagues of the CREST mission, the scientific team behind the STO effort -belonging to the University of Arizona, and John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory- was in the ice since early November integrating the instrument in one of the high bay buildings at the Long Duration Balloon facility in the Williams Field Airport, close to the McMurdo Antarctic Station.
All seemed to progress well in the task until the first days of December, when nearing the completion of the integration process a problem was detected. There was a crack in one of the most important pieces of the entire instrument: the liquid helium dewar used to cool the detectors to temperatures near absolute zero. Immediatelly action was taken to obtain repair components from the continent and by December 8 a special sealant arrived to McMurdo and repairs started at once that same weekend. After several others key components as the detectors were integrated to STO it was the turn of the Dewar to be mounted, which was acomplished succesfuly with support and help of personel of CSBF by December 20.
Some weather issues delayed the completion of the mandatory hangtest as final preparation to flight until December 28 when the payload was declared "flight ready". That same day the launch vehicle (The Boss) took STO to the launch pad for the first time to try to launch, which was finally cancelled.
By January 4, they have made three unsuccessful launch attempts so the scientists started to worry about the amount of liquid helium available at the base to keep the dewar in flight-working condition. NASA coordinated efforts to obtain the shipment of cilynders of liquid He from Australia and even the South Pole base, which arrived to McMurdo on January 6. That same day a new launch attempt was done but it was finally cancelled due to a problem in one of the gyroscopes mounted on the STO frame, which had to be replaced.
After a wait of four days, on January 10 a fifth launch attempt was made but this one ended in a launch abort, what means that at last the balloon was released from the spool. We have no data available in the kind of trouble that caused the abort. Two new launch attempts on January 12 and 13 were cancelled due to weather and the same occured with another one on January 14.
Finally, after eight cancelled launch attempts, on January 15, STO strated it's journey to the fringes of the space as can be seen in the image at right.
By the time of writing this lines, the instrument is flying at 125.000 ft and performing flawlessly.
As I've pointed out in the beginning of this post: a truly "labour". Stay tuned.... more to come.
End of flight for the CREST instrument - 1/6/2012
Williams Field, McMurdo Station.- CREST mission, launched by NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) on December 25 from the Williams Field Airport in Antarctica has ended yesterday, January 5, 2012.
After separation from the balloon, the payload landed in a point located 55 miles west of the Mario Zucchelli Station, which belongs to the italian Antarctic program. At left can be seen a map showing the track that the balloon followed around the pole during the eleven days of the journey (click to enlarge).
Althought the landing site was not yet visited by the recovery teams, the estimations are that the payload is in good shape as it still transmits housekeeping data and GPS location. The critical manouver of the landing -parachute separation after touchdown to prevent it could become a sail inflated by the wind and dragging the payload for miles- was apparently succesfully completed.