Hello and welcome to the first edition of The Stratospheric Report. From this pages every 15 days (or so) I will try to keep you informed of the current ongoings in the field of scientific and commercial ballooning. In the last three or four years the activity in that field suffered a sharp change: from being mainly dominated by two or three companies which provided balloon launch services to government agencies and universities, today is becoming more diversified incorporating small, medium, and big companies to a business experiencing a timid but sustained resurge.
This change also brings new challenges to specialized news sites like Stratocat. Until now, it was easy -and still does- to obtain information from a mostly open and cooperative scientific community often eager to share and announce their projects and findings. But now with the introduction of commercial players also came business, a more tight secrecy on propietary technology or projects, non disclosure agreements, and other barriers to the access to the information. However, to balance things a little, in the last years appeared publicly available tools which allows to get a glimpse of that world not fully visibly to the public. From the information gathered through aircraft tracking sites to the daily consultation of social media and even government information concerning aerial activity, is possible to build a limited but effective picture of what's going on in the field.
All this considered, what you will find on this pages is first hand information, with a condiment of opinion and a little bit of speculation, but based in years of knowledge of the activity.
Welcome then, and hope you enjoy the reading of this humble report as much as I enjoy writing it.
Last but not least, this first issue of the bulletin it's a little more overloaded of information than expected initially: there was a lot happening during the months I've spend preparing it and nothing deserved really to be excluded. Upcoming editions of The Stratospheric Report will be lighter. I promise.
The buttons below will transport you to the section you want to read. See you in 15 days !
While the project is advancing with the construction of a new and taller launcher platform at Winnemucca, Nevada this is a resume of the latest launch activity there.
On October 1st, was performed a short duration mission. With the callsign HBAL023 a balloon was launched at 15:54 utc and landed a little more than two hours later 115 km NE of the launch site.
On October 2, four balloons were launched: HBAL031 at 17:17 utc, HBAL032 at 18:40 utc, HBAL018 at 19:50 utc and HBAL024 at 21:16 utc.
Next day, two more launches were performed: HBAL020 at 16:08 utc and HBAL021 at 17:12 utc.
The six balloons moved across Canada and the United States and made a spectacular apparition while entering the Atlantic Ocean near Philadelphia and New Jersey. Among the great pictures obtained we can see below these lines a fantastic image of HBAL018 obtained on October 5 at 10:30am local time in Ashland Hawk Watch in Hockessin, Delaware. The photographer was David Brown who used a Canon 7Dii DSLR camera with Canon 400mm f/5.6 L lens. By the way the balloon is almost twice the altitude the plane but in the image appears the opposite.
A remarkable fact was the return to operation of the launch base that project Loon have inside the Jose Aponte de la Torre airport, in Ceiba, Puerto Rico which remained inactive since the last launch of HBAL677 in July 2. The station performed a single launch on October 10 at 2:41 utc. The balloon with callsign HBAL036 soon joined the group of six balloons from Nevada which by then were all in the Caribeean Sea.
The reason of the hiatus in the launch activity at Puerto Rico is unknown, however, after some analysis I've made with my colleague Jack Freer (who runs the fantastic website Desert Fog which among other things offers monthly statistics on Project Loon's activity as well in the development of the project in Nevada), both concluded that probably the pause was due to the Hurricane season in the Atlantic.
Back to Nevada, on October 11, four short duration missions weere performed. Generally speaking, these flights are conducted for research and development / testing purposes, and rarely leave the continental territory of the US. The launches were conducted at 13:21 utc (HBAL047), 14:52 utc (HBAL048), 16:00 utc (HBAL046) and 17:10 utc (HBAL049) and endured 4 hours aloft average.
Finally on the brink of closing this edition of the report, two more balloons were launched from Puerto Rico on October 18th: HBAL035 at 00:08 utc and HBAL037 at 1:42 utc. With these two additions the worldwide fleet of the project was increased to 39 balloons aloft.
The recovery of every Project Loon system containing expensive reusable equipment and propietary technology is mandatory for the company. To acomplish this, Loon plans in advance the landing of the balloons needed to be "extracted" from the fleet moving them to certain zones in the world for an easy recovery by local companies that perform the work on terrain. So far I've identified three fixed landing zones: the coastal desert near Ica, Peru; the plains located east of Teresina in northeast Brazil and a desertic zone 100 km north of Alice Springs in central Australia.
However, as we will see on this update, things don't always go as planned -much less in ballooning- and payloads often end up in the most unexpected places.
This is a chronological resume of the latest landings:
On September 24, HBAL706 a balloon launched from Puerto Rico on June 14, descended in the Amazonian forest, but instead impacting on ground it fell in the middle of the Salimoes River, one of the upper stretches of the Amazon River near the fishing settlement of Bom Jesus. The craft and balloon was towed to the shore from the middle of the river by locals (picture above). It was aloft 102 days
On September 25 was the turn of HBAL704 a 139 days old balloon also launched from Puerto Rico. It landed at 8:50 utc 34 km SW of the city of Ica, in Peru.
The last landing of September happened on the 26th in the Peruvian rainforest. The balloon was HBAL682 originally launched on May 7th from Puerto Rico. The landing spot was located 44 km east of Limon Cocha, in Loreto Department. Total flight time was 142 days
In october, the first landing occured on October 1st, 2019 at 00:30 utc. The balloon was HBAL813 which was launched 74 days before from the Winnemucca Base in Nevada. The landing spot was located 38 km SE of Nauta, Loreto Department, in Peru. Map of the flight path available here
The second water landing of this period occured in Ecuador on October 2th at 00:40 utc when HBAL663 descended in the Napo river, 5 km NW of the small town of Tiputini, in Orellana Province. The balloon has been in flight 118 days since launched from Puerto Rico on June 6th, 2019. HBAL681 was the next member of the project Loon fleet to land. Originally launched on May 18th from Puerto Rico it remained 141 days aloft before landing on October 6th at 16:37 utc 43 km SE of Yurimaguas in Loreto Department in Peru.
The next day at 16:10 utc, HBAL712 landed 47 km NW of Caapiranga in Amazonas State, Brazil while -apparently- was being moved towards the Teresina fixed landing zone. The balloon was launched on June 14 from Puerto Rico and completed 115 days of flight.
The last two terminations are somewhat special cases as they landed in the ocean with really few chances of being recovered. This lead to speculation about the nature of the landings which maybe related to some kind of malfunction in the balloons.
First incident occured when HBAL675 -launched on July 2, 2019 from Puerto Rico- landed at 21:42 utc on October 9 in a point located 360 km W of Christmas islands after 100 days of flight. At the moment of landing the balloon was in course towards Australia.
The second water landing occured with HBAL851 on October 13th, when it hit the surface of the Central Pacific ocean at 21:15 utc, in a point located 700 km SSW of Clipperton Island, an unhabited atolon. The balloon has been launched from Winnemucca, Nevada on August 14th and was in flight for 60 days only.
Althought there were several recoveries of balloons of Project Loon from the ocean surface in the past, the chances in these two cases seems to be low. In any case, we must be attentive to the press in case the sighting of a giant jellyfish with solar panels is reported
Recently, the Tucson based balloon firm, performed a new record setting mission of their Stratollite long duration system.
Formally denominated "Variable altitude air ballast balloon system" the Stratollite is composed by a conventional stratospheric balloon (zero pressure or ZPB) attached in tandem with one or more superpressure balloons (SPB). While the ZPB provides lift to the system, the SPB provides a variable amount of ballast by pumping in or expelling out ambient air. Thus, by adjusting the altitude they can choosing the best wind patterns to navigate above a desired area of interest or move to a determined zone.
The record making balloon was launched from Page Municipal Airport in Arizona on August 27th with callsign N103WV and remained in flight for 32 days 15 hours and 14 minutes before landing on September 28th a few miles north of Omawa, Iowa. During the month the balloon stayed in flight it moved above Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, causing quite a conmmotion in social media specially taking account of the strange shape it have. Above these lines we can see a picture of the balloon taken by Brent Newton on October 3 over Oklahoma using a Canon T3i camera attached to a Celestron C8 telescope.
The previous record for this same kind of balloon was achieved by the company in past June with a total duration of 16 days aloft.
Among the acomplishments of the mission were the execution of 4 continuous days of station keeping with average distance of 20km from the objetive and then an intentional navigation to a 2nd point of interest 1,230km away. In all the N103WV traveled more than 11.200 km during the flight on which were executed over 1000 trajectory control maneuvers from launch to landing. All this was done under supervision of staff from World View's seat at the remote Mission Control in Tucson.
This year is being particular intense in media attention for Raven Aerostar, the Sioux Falls based balloon firm. And all this turmoil is centered in the company's jewel of the crown: the Thunderhead balloon system, a steerable platform able to provide long duration and navigational stratospheric missions by leveraging directional wind patterns at high altitudes.
The media craze started in June when several UFO sightings in Ohio and Kansas led to a press release of DARPA admiting their use of Raven balloons for the ALTA (Adaptable Lighter Than Air) program...
Three balloons on a flight test for our ALTA program landed safely in northern California. The balloons navigated east to west across the country w/o propulsion, adjusting altitude to ride different wind profiles after launching from Cumberland, Md., on June 17 (shown here). pic.twitter.com/Lm2GzbVKCl— DARPA (@DARPA) June 29, 2019
...and continued in August with the publication of an explosive article by Mark Harris in The Guardian revealing that advanced surveillance systems were being used on balloons -also Raven's Thunderheads- floating for days in US mid-West.
Scoop: The Pentagon is testing stratospheric balloons across the mid-West to “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate & deter narcotic trafficking & homeland security threats.” The balloons use new radar tech to track multiple vehicles for days https://t.co/MoIKxcsO6F pic.twitter.com/HeMxWHq5Uu— Mark Harris (@meharris) August 2, 2019
In the months that followed to all that exposition, Raven Aerostar continued launching balloons for research and development purposes from it's Innovation Campus near Baltic, South Dakota and also, moved launch teams to remote areas like Paso Robles, California and Hawaii, also to launch balloons from there. All this information will be soon available on StratoCat.
Meanwhile, this is a resume of the activity performed this month:
During late september the company performed launches of their Thunderhead systems from two locations in New Mexico. On the 28th, performed three flights from Deming: HBAL0339 launched at 7:00 utc, which flew at 62.000 ft during 7 hours with landing near Ancho, New Mexico; HBAL0340 launched at 9:00 utc, that endured 4 hours flying at 59.000 ft before landing North of Tularosa and HBAL0341 launched at 11:00 utc which landed about 18:15 utc NE of Roswell, NM.
Two days later, balloon operations moved to Artesia where two more balloons were launched: HBAL0342 at 10:00 utc on September 30th, which remained aloft more than a week before landing on October 8th near Sigel, Pennsylvania; and HBAL0343 at 13:30 utc that landed seven hours later that same day near Wheatland, New Mexico.
In October the activity has been scarce. On the 7th, a balloon was launched with callsign HBAL0344 at 14:50 utc from Baltic and landed 5 hours and a half later NW of Winnebago, Minnesota.
For the next two flights, launch teams were moved west. On october 15th, HBAL0345 was launched from the Dawson Community Airport in Montana about 20:00 utc. It landed 21 hours later West of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Next flight HBAL0346 was performed on the 16th, from Faulkton Municipal Airport in South Dakota and landed NW of Des Moines also in Iowa.
Finally HBAL0348 was launched on October 17th. from Baltic at 13:50 utc landing on October 19th about 21:00 utc near Sheperd, Michigan.
The French space agency CNES along with their colleagues of Canada, performed from August 25 to September 27, 2019, the Strato Sciences 2019 campaign. The four launches took place at the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base in Ontario. Although detailed reports of each flight will be published soon in StratoCat, here is a brief resume of the four flights:
The first flight was performed on August 26, at 3:09 utc, with the launch of CABUX, a platform containing atmospheric experiments onboard an Airstar 100z balloon measuring 100.000 m3 of volume. After reaching a float altitude of 32.8 km it started a slow descent to 20 km overnight until at 15:10 utc the flight was terminated. Landing site was approximately 30km west of Timmins. The flight was nominal and allowed the scientists to record planned measurements.
The 2nd balloon launch called LIFE was a multiplatform experience containing Canadian experiments. The overall mass of the payload gondola was 600 kg and comprised a total of 10 Canadian experiments and onboard subsystems. One notable novelty was the release (from the balloon) of a remotely piloted glider during the flight. The gondola was launched using an Airstar balloon model 402Z on September 2 at 1:00 utc and remained aloft more then 16 hours, landing safely about 18:30 utc. The third balloon of the campaign was devoted to launch the SuperBIT Telescope, the balloon was launched at 0:34 utc on September 18 under another Airstar 402z balloon. Althought the flight was planned for a duration of 34 hours, it was sharply reduced to 17 hours because a slow descent was observed throughout the night and the sudden rise due to the sun in the morning was much smaller than expected. Suspecting a leaking balloon was decided to end the flight in a location that ensured both the safety of the population and the gondola itself.
The fourth and final flight of the campaign was devoted to launch the PILOT Telescope under a 802Z Airstar balloon on September 20, but due to a failure in the release mechanism, that attempt was aborted. The mission was launched succesfuly on September 24, 2019 at 9:35 utc. After a 26-hour flight, the payload landed safely almost 900km away from Timmins, in Quebec’s Cote-Nord region. Although this flight was shorter than initially planned, scientists were happy with the results and measurements obtained.
As occur each fall, NASA performed a stratospheric balloon launch campaign from its launch base in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The operations were performed by staff from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) moved from its main facility in Palestine, Texas. Ten launches were performed between August 22th, and October 17th.
While working on detailed information on the flights to publish in StratoCat next month, here is a brief resume of each mission.
BOBCAT a technology demonstration to develop advanced instrumentation for astrophysical observations at far-infrared wavelengths was launched on August 22 at 14:00 utc as mission 696N. After 8 hours aloft it landed close to the New Mexico-Arizona border.
A technological flight denominated 11MCF Piggyback Flight was launched as mission 697N on September 4th for a duration of 4 hours. It landed south of Willard, New Mexico.
The High Altitude Student Platform (HASP) was launched the next day at 13:03 utc as mission 698N. After spending 7 hour and 37 minutes at 125.000 ft it landed in rugged terrain West of White Mesa, Utah. The CSBF recovery truck has not be able to find a route that can be used to drive up to or near the payload and an helicopter was used to retrieve the gondola.
BITSE short for the Balloon-borne Investigation of Temperature and Speed of Electrons in the corona, was the next mission to be flown. This telescope was aimed to took images of the Sun's atmosphere to see how it sends solar wind, the constant outflow of solar particles, blowing through space. It was launched on September 18 at 14:55 utc as mission 699N and landed after 9 hours aloft in the Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation NW of Ojito, New Mexico.
Next technological mission dubbed as Long Duration Balloon Test Flight including ride-along missions like Cubes In Space, INMEX, SuperSEIS and more, was flown as mission 700NT on September 23th. Launched at 14:00 utc it remained flying at 125.000 ft during 7 hours.
On September 28th was the turn of Picture-C a new telescope that will seek out planets that resemble Earth. The balloon was launched as mission 701N at 15:00 utc and remained in flight during 20 hours before landing NW of Techado, New Mexico.
Next balloon launched was JPL Remote aimed to obtain limb measurements of ket atmospheric components. The flight nomenclated as mission 702N was launched at 14:30 utc on October 7th. After a total flight time of 13 hours the payload descended NW of Clovis, New Mexico.
On October 14th, PIPER (Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer) aimed to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) was launched as mission 703N. The balloon was released at 13:38 utc and remained floating at 98.000 ft during 14 hours until landing east of Lubbock, Texas.
The last two missions used small balloons which don't needed the use of the special launch vehicle of the base. The first one transporting a payload called THAI-SPICE was launched as mission 704N at 13:56 utc on October 16th. It remained in flight for five hours before landing NE of Holis, Oklahoma. The second small balloon was launched the next day at 13:50 utc as mission 705N transporting a payload called ReckTangLE wich remained aloft 4 hours before landing in Texas.
ISTAR, the Sisters-based company founded by Steven Peterzen, performed during September a balloon launch campaign at Sisters Eagle Airport with a science team from the University of Washington, Space and Earth Sciences, - Seattle lead by Research Associate Professor Michael McCarthy. The objective of the campaign -which is a continuation of the flights made there in July- was to measure the electrical properties of the atmosphere, more specifically the electric current flowing between the upper atmosphere and the earth.
The most recent flight, of a 5 balloon launch program, was carried out on the 2nd September at 10:46 AM. The balloon, a Raven Aerostar model SF-0.300-.3/0 TC with a volume of 300.000 cubic feet, reached a maximum altitude of 123,461 feet with a float altitude of 116,500 feet and all the science systems working as designed.
During the first night with cold temperatures the payload stopped communicating until the next day when it warmed up. It was then decided to shorten the projected 4 day float time and terminate the flight to reduce any risk of a period where commanding would not get through. The balloon was safely terminated and payload descended under parachute to an area in NW Oregon at coordinates Latitude 45.610 and Longitude -123.337.
After solving the problem suffered during the flight with the payload communications, the campaign will continue in the summer of 2020 also from the Sisters Eagle Airport.