NASA will test new parachutes for Mars using balloons - 4/17/2012
Las Cruces, New Mexico.- Two weeks ago, the New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory (in charge of operating for NASA the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility)announced the signing of a 12.5 million dollars contract supplement with the federal space agency to support balloon related operations to be performed for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator project.
The effort -being developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory- aims to replace the parachute-based deceleration systems created originaly for the Viking Program, developing new supersonic inflatable decelerators and supersonic parachute technologies to enable sending larger payloads on Mars with greater precision.
The problem of landing a craft there, is the very thin atmosphere. The surface density on Mars is equivalent to the same density we have on earth at an altitude of 100,000 feet above the surface.
Through this technology demonstration mission, up to four 8.000 pound LDSD test payloads will be lifted to an initial altitude of 120,000 feet by a stratospheric balloon. Once at that altitude, rocket motors will be fired to lift the payloads to 180,000 feet reaching a velocity four times the speed of sound, thus simulating a Martian atmospheric entry. Inflatable decelerators will then be deployed to slow the vehicles to half speed at which time parachutes will be deployed for final descent.
The dangerous nature of the rocket powered test vehicle, forced NASA balloon program to develop a new "static" launch technique as well to use a remote launch site outside the continental US. The choosen place is the Pacific Missile Range Facility, in Barking Sands, Hawaii Islands.
According to the press release, the funding will be allotted over two years and will be used to design and build a stationary tower from which will hang up the payload during the launch process, a center pivot that will lay out the balloon and a new spool vehicle able to restrain the balloon while it is inflating.
Althought details of the test vehicle and flight profile were not disclosed yet, generally speaking the mission will be developed on identical form that were carried out similar tests back in 1972 for the Viking project. On the picture below we can see the flight plan for the project.
On that opportunity, four flights were made launching the balloons from the Roswell Industrial Air Center. After reaching float altitude they followed the usual westward wind flow of summer months in New Mexico and once entering the restricted air space over the White Sands Missile Range the spacecraft was released from the balloon and rocketed at a high velocity to an altitude of 45 kilometers to simulate the reentry.
The main difference with this scheme is that all the testing and even the recovering of the model spacecraft and balloon would be carried out at sea. Quite a challenge.
Balloon cause commotion on India - 4/12/2012
Hyderabad, India.- A stratospheric balloon launched today by Indian scientists from the National Balloon Facility located in downtown Hyderabad, triggered the curiosity of thousands of people who saw a very unusual bright object in the morning sky.
According to the press reports published in the Deccan Chronicle and Times of India "...The city was soon buzzing with messages on the transparent object floating in the sky beeping on cell phones and experts at the planetary society and Birla Planetarium were inundated with calls. Some local news channels too started flashing the news repeatedly about the mysterious object looking down at the city from the sky..."
The balloon with a volume of four million cubic feet was launched around midnight, from the facility managed by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and a few hours after was floating at 41 km of altitude.
The payload was an experiment called LASE (Large Area Scintillation counter Experiment) an X-ray telescope made of two modules of scintillation detectors having both passive and active shielding and fitted on a fully steerable equatorial mount. It's main objective is to detect microsecond variations in the flux of X-ray sources in the hard X-rays spectrum (upto 200 keV).
Below can be seen a brief video of the balloon in the sky, taken by Mr. Shashank Guda from Southend Park, in Hyderabad.
After floating all night, the balloon, illuminated by the rising sun, appeared as a bright dot in the sky northeast of the city. For a while thousands believed that a truly UFO was visiting them, until authorities of the TIFR explained the real origin of the craft, and added that the payload landed in Jangaon, close to the Warangal highway, in Andhra Pradesh.
The city of Hyderabad has a long history on scientific ballooning activities. A full report on this, including a complete flight record can be seen in Balloon launch sites in Hyderabad, India