The 2008/2009 Antarctic balloon flight campaign is at full steam - 11/27/2008

Williams Field, Antarctica.- As each year since 1990, dozens of scientists and technicians from over the world came to McMurdo station to collaborate in the launch of the biggest balloons the white continent ever seen.

On the last week of October arrived the first Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team to setup along with the field contractor (Raytheon Polar Services Company or RPSC) the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Site facilities located at Williams Field airport.

After 15 days working on providing electrical power, checking radiant heat system and doing IT and communications facilities being operational by 4 November when the first scientific team just arrived, the entire facility was fully operational. A minor incident occured 2 days after on 7 November, when the McMurdo Fire Station responded to an alarm generated in the LDB Site Mechanical Building due to a chlorine gas escape. Nobody resulted injured due to the incident and were not suffered any serious disruption on work schedules. The area was decontaminated by 15 November.

Also in the mean time, the launch vehicle (called "THE BOSS") and the launch spool have been checked after winter storage and returned to a full operational status being both certified as flight ready.

In regard the balloon flights, three of them will be performed this year. Two of them to launch scientific payloads while the remaining to flight test an scaled-up version of the Ultra Long Duration Balloon (ULDB). The CSBF personnel which will take part of the ULDB integration process are scheduled to arrive to McMurdo on first days of December.

The first scientific team to arrive to "the ice" was from the Hawaii University whom are in charge of ANITA (Antarctic Impulse Transient Antenna) a radio telescope to detect ultra-high energy cosmic-ray neutrinos. It detects these ultra-high energy particles by use of the Askaryan effect. This effect predicts the production of a coherent radio emission from the cascade of particles produced in a high-energy particle interaction.

This will be the fourth flight after a first test "piggy backing" on TIGER in 2003 a second full scale engineering test from Fort Sumner in 2005 and the first scientific Antarctic flight in 2006.

So far, the ANITA instrument and battery box have been installed on the gondola and now the science group is starting the final integration and testing.

The other scientific instrument will be CREAM (Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass) developed by the University of Maryland and NASA Wallops Flight Facility which was built to explore the supernova acceleration limit of cosmic rays, the relativistic gas of protons, electrons and heavy nuclei arriving at Earth from outside the solar system.

This will by the fourth Antarctic flight for CREAM which still holds the endurance flight record for an Antarctic flight of 42 days achieved in the 2004/2005 campaign.

The integration of the CREAM payload started on early November and after data flow testing of the TDRSS and Iridium communication systems through Palestine, Wallops Island and Maryland the past week, the final test process has begun.

On regard the wind pattern, was confirmed the formation of the austral summer anticyclone which has begun moving toward Antarctica. However, according to the previsions, the final establishment of the polar vortex will occur not before 3 December.

More information:

:: On ULDB The Adventures of Stratodude at Mike Smith's Blog
:: On CREAM at University of Maryland website
:: On ANITA at Hawaii University website

Opened the launch window for FITE in Brazil - 11/18/2008

Cachoeira Paulista, Brazil.- In another step in cooperation between space agencies from Japan and Brazil, this month started a balloon launch campaign involving four flights. Three of them will be test pilot launches and the fourth will transport a X-Ray telescope called FITE (Far-Infrared Interferometric Telescope Experiment). The launch window was set in November 17 and would remain open until December 12.

The operation will be carried out in the main base of Brazil's Space Agency (INPE) run by the Setor de Lancamento de Baloes (balloon launch sector) located in Cachoeira Paulista in Sao Paulo state. According to the time of year on which the experiment is done, the balloon would follow a westward path with a mean flight duration of 12 hours. The balloon required to lift the 1.6 ton telescope to the cruise height of 32.7 km, will have a volume of near 300.000 cubic meters and was manufactured in japan.

The FITE experiment started in 2003 to develope a proof-of-concept balloon-borne instrument equipped with a Michelson interferometer, that will achieve the tremendous spatial resolution in far-infrared of about 1 arcsec at 100 micron. Hopefully it will open a new frontier to study dusty universe in far infrared. FITE is a collaboration among Universities of Nagoya and Osaka as well Japan space agency JAXA.

This flight was intended to be done in 2007, but it was delayed due to several problems with a cryostat, a key component of the instrument whose purpose is to cool to near 2 degrees Kelvin the detectors of the telescope, the only way to detect the faint infrared radiation. The leak detected in the cryostat forced to repair it and thus the scientific launch campaign was delayed until now.

Stay tuned. In a few days we will have news for all of you on the campaign ongoings. Meanwhile, ¿why not to spend some time reading our improved page about balloon launch bases in Brazil?

Tension arise between both Koreas due to balloon launches - 11/12/2008

Seoul, South Korea.- North Korea government is warning South Korea of a pre-emptive strike that will turn the South into "debris" if Seoul does not stop what the North calls "a policy of confrontation". The ominous warning was issued after South Korean human rights groups launched from small boats in waters east of the Korean Peninsula 40,000 leaflets inside helium balloons. The leaflets were sharply critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and repeat the claims made in recent news reports that he is in poor health as the result of a stroke he suffered in August.

While the government of South Korea is asking these groups for their help in easing tension, Park Sang-hak, president of the Seoul-based North Korea Freedom Coalition, who since 1999 when he defected from North Korea become a key organizing figure of these kind of propaganda efforts says he has no intention of stopping the balloon launches, which he says are legal.

By the efforts of private citizens in South Korea, the balloons have been a commonly used method to try to break North Korea's self-imposed information embargo, but this latest leaflet campaign seems to have touched a particularly raw nerve. According to the opinion of analysts, the personal nature of the leaflets could be one reason why the North is so angry this time.

The huge cilyndrical balloons carrying leaflets float into the North on southerly winds. Each bag of leaflets has its own timing mechanism, readied to burst open at different intervals and scatter the cargo over a wide area.

The balloon-borne leaflets was one of the several ways to send propaganda onto enemy's land and was specially used during the cold war years. Then, under CIA covert efforts masked behind open initiatives like "Radio Free Europe" firms like General Mills, developed the so called "pillow balloons" as well a smart dry-ice-based gadget to perform the automatic release of the cargo once the balloons reached their objectives. The system was perfectioned even to the point that, in some cases making a careful analysis of the weather patterns and winds, some kind of "targeted" bombardement was possible, sending the balloons with the leaflets at the time of massive concentrations and political meetings.

In a future we will return to this topic more in extense.

By now, get more information on North Korean balloon crisis at:

:: An Act of Subversion, Carried by Balloons at Washington Post web site
:: Storm looms over N.Korea balloons at BBC web site
:: Balloon campaign assails North Korea at BBC web site
:: North Korea Threatens to Turn South Into Debris at VOA web site

And about balloon-borne leaflets past projects at:

:: Balloons over East Europe at Psywar Society web site

A balloon for TITAN - 11/7/2008

Paris, France.- In another attempt to fill the knowledge gap on Titan (Saturn's largest moon) scientists of the Paris Observatory are helping to draw a mission to fly a balloon there.

It is part of a program called TSSM (Titan and Saturn System Mission) a three-tiered approach to the exploration of that space body using an orbiting spacecraft, a surface probe and a hot air balloon.

"...Titan is the best place to go with a balloon because of the atmosphere..." said Athena Coustenis, an astrophysicist and planetologist from the Paris Observatory, in an article published this week in NASA's Astrobiology Magazine. Although the atmosphere of Titan is filled with a smoggy orange hydrocarbon haze, it is primarily composed of nitrogen, just like Earth's.

To move around, the TSSM balloon could be outfitted with a helicopter-like rotor that would allow it to fly from place to place. The probe design also may include floaters that would prevent it from sinking if it landed on one of Titan's hydrocarbon lakes.

"...Why would we want to have a new mission unless we were going to do something original with it...?" she asks at the skeptical view about the risky profile of the mission. " challenging, but it's do-able. Even if it is a crazy idea, we shouldn't keep sending the same kinds of missions out there..."

The so called "planetary ballooning" is a topic that almost any agency in the world with balloon/rocket launch capabilities had studied or even aimed to develope at some point in the past. The great majority of these projects were focused on exploring Mars (JPL and CNES) and a few are in study to fly-by Jupiter ans Saturn, as well their Moon's. As a matter of fact back in the 80's decade, the Soviet Union succeeded in drop twice a space probe on Venus and release a balloon. That landmark occured on June 11 and 15, 1985 the two packages containing the balloons have been inserted in the atmosphere of Venus from the Soviet VEGA landing modules. During descent in the atmosphere the balloons were inflated with helium through a specially designed inflation system and ascended to its floating level of about 54 km over the surface of the planet.

A similar aproach will be followed for the TITAN balloon which would be released from an entry aeroshell after traverse through the atmosphere (much like Huygens parachute was deployed); it would then inflate during descent and reach full inflation above 10 km. Following inflation, the Montgolfiere would float around Titan's globe carried by the winds. At mid-latitudes, it would circle the globe in about 6 months. The Montgolfiere would be designed for a lifetime of at least one year (two circumnavigations of Titan's globe) but could live much longer. The altitude of the Montgolfiere would be autonomously adjusted/controlled by using a vent valve in the top of the balloon and on-board software fed by attitude and altitude sensors. Payload options to be studied for the Montgolfiere range in mass from 10 to 30 kg.

Much of the TSSM balloon initiative relies on the near 30 years of experience of the French Space Agency which operates the only scientific hot air autonomous balloon in the world: the Montgolfiere Infrarouge (Infrared Montgolfier). The European Space Agency (ESA) is involved in a complementary mission entitled Titan and Enceladus Mission (TANDEM) which will use the orbiter from TSSM to look at the other Saturn's moon which had allways attracted the curiosity of the science: Enceladus.

Currently, NASA and ESA are working in cooperation to develop an outer planets mission, and they are expected to choose what kind of mission it will be. They have to choice the next year between the TSSM project and a mission to Jupiter and its moon Europa. Whichever mission they choose, the projected launch date is around 2020, with an arrival around 2030.

More information:

:: Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) at JPL's web site
:: Tandem Mission at ESA's web site

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