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World Balloon News # 22
November 7th, 2023
First balloons launched on La Réunion • Aerostar balloons over the Atlantic and Texas • Iwaya tests manned capsule at 10 km • B2Space balloon over Spain • GUSTO telescope delivered to Antarctica.
Two Thunderhead balloons launched on La Réunion.
On October 8, 2023, the Island of Reunion located in the Indian Ocean 680 kilometers east of Madagascar served as a launch place for stratospheric balloons for the first time in its history.
Two Thunderhead long-duration super-pressure balloons were launched from there by Aerostar within two hours of each other. Both balloons moved first east of the island while ascending and then moved north. They remained within the coverage of most tracking plane networks for 8 and 42 hours respectively, before getting off the grid. So far, they didn’t show up again.
After some consultation with a good friend who lives there, I've managed to know that the operation took place in the "Camp Militaire de la Plain des Cafres" a military base located in one of the several plains that the island has. The operation was very subtle and passed almost unnoticed by the local population especially taking into account that the balloons were launched between local midnight and 2 AM. No coverage or mention in local media and social networks was evident.
Aerostar with its eyes on the North Atlantic and the Permian Basin
Not long ago, one of the favorite spots for Aerostar’s Thunderhead balloons to hover endlessly was the equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean near the Gulf of Guinea, where many of them spent several weeks, completely out of sight. Now it seems that this focus shifted to the North Atlantic.
During October and the first days of November, several flights were performed enhancing the firm's interest in this region.
On October 18, mission HBAL 666 was launched from an airport near Franklin, Indiana, and moved into the Atlantic in the following days. It appeared back in the ADS-B grid on October 27 near the Lesser Antilles and followed a route across the Caribbean to finally land in Florida near Belle Glade on Halloween.
On October 23 and 24 were launched from Aerostar’s flight facility near Hurley (SD) HBAL 661 and HBAL 665. Both balloons moved eastbound and started to operate in the North Atlantic two days later. The last known position for both crafts was on October 31 south of the Canary Islands, very close to Africa. Presumably, the balloons are still floating there somewhere out of the grid.
On November 2 was launched another mission that at first seemed bound for the Atlantic too. However, HBAL 667 was terminated after little more than 12 hours aloft not far from the Orangeville township in Michigan.
One particular flight I’ve followed closely was HBAL 653. The balloon was launched on August 16 from South Dakota and after entering Canada it ended over the Atlantic Ocean off the Newfoundland coast. Days later, it appeared briefly close to the Azores Islands and then moved again towards the east coast of the United States only to disappear again after four more days of hovering nearby.
The balloon was planned to land in Texas (at least that is what revealed a picture of one of the monitors at Aerostar HQ during a visit by students), but all of a sudden on October 12 shortly after passing The Turk And Caicos Islands the balloon was terminated ditching in the Caribbean Sea, 100 km W of Great Inagua. At that moment the balloon was approaching the coast of Cuba.
With not enough room to maneuver, probably it was terminated before entering the airspace of a country that was not allowed to overfly. Something similar to what occurred with the World View Stratollite mission I mentioned in the last issue.
Although these explanations are speculations I make based on the experience of years of observing this activity, those events are a reminder that the concept of “steering” a balloon is still in the early stages of development and requires conditions not always present in real-life situations.
Another region that presents special interest for stratospheric balloon missions is the Permian Basin, a large sedimentary area located in western Texas, containing the highest-producing oil field in the United States. In 2021, the Biden administration passed its infrastructure law, that mandates that oil and gas companies monitor methane emissions or be penalized. To comply with this, Aerostar and Scepter a company specializing in atmospheric monitoring launched a Thunderhead balloon on October, 17 from Santa Fe County in New Mexico. ExxonMobil sponsored the flight.
The balloon moved to the Permian Basin in the following days and once it completed its mission, it was moved further east (including an interesting maneuver to avoid the Dallas area) for a final landing in a farm in Arkansas after eight days of flight.
In March, World View, the Tucson-based balloon firm, performed a flight with a similar goal for Scepter in southern Texas.
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Iwaya Inc. tested its manned balloon capsule at 10 km of altitude
On October 14, 2023, Iwaya Inc. the Sapporo-based balloon firm aiming to offer in the future balloon-based manned flights to near space conducted a successful piloted flight of their T9-III pressurized capsule to an altitude of 10.669 meters.
The objective of the flight was to verify the operation of the pressurized cabin and life support system in the low-pressure environment of the lower stratosphere and to demonstrate that it is possible to reach an altitude of over 10,000 meters using balloons developed in-house.
The pilot Akito Iwagawa (who is part of the R&D department of Iwaya) became the first person to reach such altitude in a sealed environment above Japan.
The flight lasted for 141 minutes for a traveling distance of 73 kilometers from Minami to Homoto in central Hokkaido.
Since the first tethered tests in Fukushima in February 2022, the company has been conducting flight tests inside and outside Hokkaido on a monthly basis, gradually increasing the altitude and extending the flight distance.
A few days after the test, the CEO of the company Keisuke Iwaya announced that the company would conduct a two-person test at an altitude of 25 km in early 2024. For that test will be used the next iteration of their pressurized cabin the T-10 “Earther”
Balloon flight by B2Space over Spain
As I briefly mentioned in the last issue, on October 4, 2023, the UK-based company B2Space launched a stratospheric balloon from the military airport of Virgen del Camino in León, Spain. The mission was performed under the BLUE JAY initiative a program that engages with universities worldwide to provide students with unique opportunities to learn, develop their skills, fly, and test their experiments in near space.
The payloads included in the mission belonged to the University Institute of Applied Microelectronics (IUMA) of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC), the University Rey Juan Carlos and Alfonso X el Sabio University the three from Spain and N Space Tech, a company from India.
The balloon flight reached an altitude of 19 km with a duration of 2 hours and 39 minutes, making a controlled landing north of Gordaliza del Pino, province of León.
Further details and images of the flight are available as usual in the flight report published recently in StratoCat.
GUSTO telescope delivered to Antarctica in NASA’s C-130 plane
On a historical trip of more than 13.000 nautical miles a NASA C-130 plane transported from Wallops Island to Mc Murdo base in Antarctica the GUSTO (Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory) telescope, one of the instruments that will be launched during the Austral Summer launch campaign of the agency in the white continent.
After being integrated during the last month at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, the instrument was moved to Fort Cavazos, where on October 17 was picked up by the plane. From there, the plane performed additional stops to service the aircraft and for crew rest at Travis AFB, California; Hickman AFB, Hawaii; Pago Pago, American Samoa; and Christchurch, New Zealand, before finally reaching McMurdo.
Although it is not the first time an instrument has been delivered by plane to the ice, generally speaking, all instruments bound for Antarctica are transported either by ship or using bigger cargo planes from USAF.
GUSTO will fly for an expected record-setting duration of several weeks under a Super Pressure Balloon provided by Aerostar the balloon firm from South Dakota which has been historically the main customer for the balloon program of the agency.
The objective of the telescope on its maiden flight will be to measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars. This data will help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy, witness the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our galaxy.
A more in-depth view of GUSTO will be published in upcoming issues of this newsletter as the campaign develops. Stay tuned!
HEMERIA, a major player in the aerospace industry, and long-standing partner of the CNES balloon program (after absorbing AIRSTAR which already inherited ZODIAC operations) signed a framework agreement with the French space agency on October 11, 2023. The new contract involves the supply of 50 zero-pressure balloons (counting main balloons and auxiliary ones) and 40 super-pressure balloons, 30 of which will be delivered by September 2025, for the next stage of the Stratéole-2 campaign. The balloons will be manufactured at HEMERIA’s plant in Ayguesvives, southeast of the city of Toulouse. [ Link ]
Urban Sky, a Colorado-based firm that uses small balloons for high-resolution aerial imagery and wildfire monitoring, closed a $9.75 million Series “A” round to scale its Earth imaging operations and expand its data products. The new funding will serve to build out a routine catalog of refreshed data over highly populated areas and other zones of interest for customers, mostly related to environmental monitoring, insurance, and oil and gas customers. [ Link ]
A glimpse of Urban Sky’s activity can be seen in the most recent chapter of “Hello World” with Ashlee Vance, a series by Bloomberg Originals.
That’s all folks for this… week, month, whatever. See you soon, and remember, if you like the contents of this humble newsletter, please share it with those who could be interested.