World Balloon News #23
December 5th, 2023
NASA balloon campaign in Antarctica • New image of SuperBIT telescope landing • Aerostar activity of the month • Flight of SCEYE stratospheric airship • HEMERIA’s BalMan operational by 2026 • In brief • New contents in StratoCat
I confess that I was surprised by the impact that the last edition of this humble newsletter had. According to Substack statistics, the readings of edition No. 22 almost quadrupled compared to the previous ones.
Thank you very much to everyone who shared and helped this growth and many thanks to the new subscribers. I also want to thank all those friends who contributed their monetary grain of sand to help StratoCat and this newsletter to carry on.
Ok guys, let’s go with the news…
NASA balloon campaign starts in Antarctica
With all the teams already installed in the Long Duration Balloon facility near McMurdo Station, NASA is ready to start its yearly austral summer balloon launch campaign. The agency with the support of the US National Science Foundation has been performing these missions almost every year since 1990. The great advantage of performing these flights in Antarctica resides in two main factors: the so-called polar vortex, and the constant solar radiation.
The vortex is a persistent, large, high-pressure system that forms a unique atmospheric circulation pattern over Antarctica. It allows scientists to launch balloons from a site and recover them from very nearly the same spot weeks later after they have circled the continent one to three times. Regarding the solar factor, it is key to perform long-duration flights because constant daylight in Antarctica means minimal day-to-night temperature fluctuations on the balloon, allowing zero-pressure balloons to maintain a near-constant altitude for a longer time.
For this year, three balloon flights are scheduled to be launched starting in December.
We already mentioned in our past edition the main payload of the season, the GUSTO telescope. GUSTO stands for Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory and is a balloon-borne instrument equipped with very sensitive detectors that will measure emission lines for carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen to obtain a deep insight into the full lifecycle of the interstellar medium, the cosmic material found between stars. During the planned two-month flight it will map a large part of the Milky Way galaxy, including the galactic center, and the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud.
The telescope will be transported around Antarctica by a Super-Pressure balloon in a “throwaway” mission. ¿What does it mean? unlike occurs with all the payloads launched by NASA in the white continent, GUSTO has been planned for not to be recovered at the end of the flight. As probably the polar vortex will break up by the time the telescope's mission is concluded, the payload will be taken by the prevailing winds outside the continent and will be sunk in the ocean.
Another instrument taking part in the campaign is AESOP-Lite, an acronym for Anti-Electron Sub-Orbital Payload developed by the University of Delaware and the University of California Santa Cruz which is aimed to measure cosmic-ray electrons and positrons. These electron measurements will be compared to Voyager I and II, which reached interstellar space and have been measuring cosmic ray electrons since 2012 and 2018, respectively.
There will be two particular milestones on this flight: this will be the first Antarctic flight for the instrument and it will fly under a 60 million cubic feet zero-pressure balloon the largest in NASA's inventory and also the largest ever launched in the white continent. The balloon -manufactured by Aerostar International- will allow AESOP-Lite to reach extremely high altitudes surpassing 150.000 feet.
Another experiment called ANIHALA (Antarctic Infrasound Hand Launch) will also be transported onboard. Its objective is to measure natural background sound in the stratosphere over a continent where human-generated sound is largely absent. This is a cooperative mission between the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and Sandia National Lab. from the United States.
A third mission will also be launched this season: LAURA acronym for Long durAtion evalUation solaR hand LAunch. This will be an engineering test flight, carried out under the supervision of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, that will utilize solar panels to extend the science capability of the hand launch platform from a few days in flight to long-duration flights. A small zero-pressure balloon will be used for transporting the experiment and it will be hand-launched. These balloons are about 40 times smaller in volume than the heavy-lift balloons and have limited time aloft due to the amount and weight of batteries used for powering the science and balloon instruments.
So far, the first balloon in the launch queue is LAURA which was assigned the mission number 735NT.
Once aloft, the balloons can be followed in real-time via the NASA website at: https://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/payloads.htm
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First known image of the landing site of the SuperBIT telescope in Argentina
After several months of its flight and in a completely coincidental way we finally have access to an image of the state of the SuperBIT telescope after its landing in Argentine Patagonia last May. It appeared in a presentation file published by NASA documenting the basic operations of the balloon program in 2023 as part of an outreach activity held in Virginia in October.
Although there is no specific reference to the landing, the image shows the main tube of the telescope and part of its support structure lying on a steep rocky slope, and in the foreground the “Space Kiwi” a soft toy mascot that was attached to one side of the telescoped during its 39 days aloft circling the southern hemisphere. The terrain surrounding the scene coincides with the general appearance of the isolated site where the telescope landed in the Argentinian province of Santa Cruz.
As I already published back in June the parachute did not properly disconnect from the payload on landing, causing the payload to drag in high winds over rough terrain for 2-3 km, basically destroying everything.
The publication in question also shows a nice picture of the southern lights illuminating the surface of NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon probably obtained by the top plate cameras during one of the excursions it made to the Antarctic night zone
The SuperBIT telescope gained recently some headlines again after the publication of an extensive article featuring the DRS (Data Recovery System), a system consisting of four droppable capsules containing 5 TB solid-state data storage, plus a GNSS receiver, Iridium transmitter, and a parachute that allowed the salvage of the data obtained during the flight despite payload destruction at landing.
Aerostar activity of the month
Unlike what happened in previous editions of this humble bulletin, there was not much activity during the past month on the side of Aerostar the South Dakota-based balloon firm. During almost the entire month of November, no new launches were accomplished by the company. Despite the pace of flights suffering a sharp decrease (something that is not uncommon at this time of year), all the activity was focused on two Thunderhead long-duration super-pressure balloons that were launched in October and were still on flight during November.
Both balloons (with callsigns HBAL 665 and HBAL 661) moved eastbound and started to operate in the North Atlantic going as far as the Canary Islands on October 31. Both balloons remained moving together with merely a few hundred miles between them, however on November 6 HBAL 661 appeared NE of the Lesser Antilles but there were no traces of its companion then and the following days. The balloon crossed Puerto Rico and Republica Dominicana before approaching Central America. The crossing from the Caribbean to the Pacific took merely one day. Unlike what occurred with previous overflights, the crossing of Costa Rican airspace did not go unnoticed as we can see in the image below.
However, when HBAL 661 disappeared again from the grid in most plane tracking apps, suddenly their lost companion, HBAL 665, popped up off the Costa Rican Atlantic coast. After a brief hovering it followed the same route as the previous balloon (this time remaining unnoticed to the public eye) and by November 15 it was off the grid too. So far, none of the balloons have been seen again.
Last but not least, Aerostar returned to flight with two brief missions on November 29th and December 1st. Both balloons were launched from Hurley (SD) and probably were what the company calls IRAD or Internal Research And Development test flights aimed to train different wind models or testing components and systems.
HBAL 668 remained in flight for 8 hours before landing near Central Junction, Iowa while HBAL 669 spent 7 hours aloft and landed near the small city of Altura in southeastern Minnesota.
Sceye Inc. performed a new flight of their stratospheric airship
For the fourth and last time in the year, the Roswell Air Center in New Mexico saw the smooth and elegant lift-off of the stratospheric airship being developed by SCEYE Inc. The event occurred on November 3rd in front of the hangar that the New Mexico-based firm had built close to the North end of the 17/35 runway.
According to what was published by the company after the test, the main objectives of the flight were to test reliable launch and ascent, automation of pressure control, demonstration of attitude control and pitch stability, and more. Furthermore, the platform carried payloads from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) capable of advanced earth observation.
The airship was released at 17:45 UTC and remained in flight for one and a half hours before landing in a desert point located 48 km east of the facility.
Hemeria’s steerable balloon BalMan could enter service in 2026
According to the publication CNES and Hemeria will sign a development contract worth several million euros by the end of the year to launch a new stage of this dual program, which is of interest both for scientific and military communities. The two-year-long phase 2, will be financed by the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. It will begin in early 2024 under Program 191 which finances actions of interest to defense carried out by two operators, CNES and the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA).
BalMan will be an innovative balloon, capable of maneuvering and controlling its trajectory using a well-proven concept first introduced by Project Loon and later continued by Aerostar Int. with its Thunderhead design. The balloon could transport a payload of up to 50 kg in weight.
As declared to Le Tribune by Nicolas Multan, CEO of Hemeria, if everything goes according to plan, the first version of this balloon should be put into service in 2026. After several tethered flights in 2024 in the Tarbes region (a commune in the Hautes-Pyrénées department in the Occitanie region of southwestern France), 2025 will be a crucial year for the BalMan program with two free flights: an in-flight test of the balloon envelope alone (probably carrying a technological payload to study the balloon's behavior) and a second mission at the end of 2025, to further test the balloon plus a scientific payload.
These tests will allow Hemeria to validate the system, particularly the reliability of the envelope subjected to radiation from the sun, as it will be exposed for weeks or months to the harsh conditions of the stratosphere.
In October 2020 CNES performed the first tethered test of an early design of the balloon in the Aire Sur L’Adour base (see below).
According to what was published in an extensive note in Space News by Debra Werner, the Spanish ecosystem of balloon-based suborbital tourism companies is going through a series of disputes between the main contenders. The turbulent current situation in the sector is mainly fueled by the indictment on the unlawful discovery of trade secrets by Zero 2 Infinity against Halo Space, Eos X Space Technologies Corp., and Arthur D. Little Spain. The issue is so complex and tangled that it escapes any possible synthesis that I could make on this bulletin, which is why I leave you below the link to the article in question so that you can delve deeper into the topic. [ Link ]
An accidental fire that occurred on November 7, and the subsequent reignition a week later, almost destroyed one of the two historical wooden blimp hangars at the former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin Base in Orange County, California. Seventeen stories high, over 1,000 feet long, and 300 feet wide, the hangars were built in 1942 by the United States Navy for blimp operations to support the Navy's coastal patrol efforts during World War II. In the 70’s decade, the site hosted one of the flights of the manned balloon project ATMOSAT and in recent years it served twice to launch a new kind of balloon developed by the famed aeronaut Julian Nott. The last flight he performed from Tustin in 2019 would claim his life when the capsule rolled down the side of the mountain where the balloon landed with the pilot still inside.
While waiting for news about the outside CONUS operations that World View announced last month, the company’s plans to merge with the special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Leo Holdings Corp. II that was made public in January 2023 have been delayed again as shareholders voted to push back again the date by which it must complete the deal to October 12, 2024. The details were well explained by Aria Alamalhodaei in an article published in TechCrunch. However, on November 17, World View and Leo Holdings Corp II announced that they were finally canceling the merger operation in a mutual agreement. The operation is a common practice in the aerospace industry where dozens of companies have entered the public markets by merging with a SPAC, a shell or blank-check firm that raises capital through the public markets with the sole purpose of acquiring or merging with a private company to take it public.
New contents in StratoCat
A lot of new content has been added to StratoCat since the last time I published this section in the newsletter. Most of the new content is the flight reports on relevant flights of the past and present, full of details on the experiments done, maps of flight paths, pictures of launches and landings, and so on. Here is a concise list of these additions:
TICAL is an X-ray telescope developed by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research from India and the University of Calgary in Canada. The first generation of the instrument flew three times in 1980, again in 1983, and 1984 while the second generation flew two times in 1988 and 1990. All of the flights were performed from Hyderabad, India.
The XGAP experiment carried out by the Astrophysics Department of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE) from Brazil to obtain simultaneous measurements of variations in the terrestrial magnetic field and the intensity of atmospheric photons in the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly. Three balloon flights were made in 1978 from Cachoeira Paulista, on Nov. 29, Dec. 11, and Dec. 15.
The first balloon-borne Super Conducting Magnet Spectrometer developed by a team led by Dr. Robert L. Golden at NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center (later Johnson Space Center) in late 1960s. The instrument flew twice in 1969 from Palestine, Texas in June and in August. The next year it took part in the GALAXIA 70 balloon launch campaign in Paraná, Argentina performing two more missions on November 13 and November 27.
Full details of the MINIS (Miniature Spectrometer) campaign performed in 2005 both in the North and South poles. The instrument was developed by the University of California Berkeley, the University of Houston, the University of Washington, and Dartmouth College. The objective was to observe dusk-side relativistic electron precipitation events from multiple locations to study spatial extent and variation, north-south conjugacy, and evolution as electrons drift over several hours of local time. After an engineering flight in 2003, the full-fledged campaign took place in 2005 with six flights: four balloons were launched from the SANAE base in Antarctica on Jan. 17, Jan. 19, Jan. 20, and Jan. 24 while two more were launched from Fort Churchill, Canada on Jan. 21, and Jan. 25.
As usual, all the flight reports are full of technical details, pictures -when available- and external references on peer-reviewed papers, freely available thanks to Sci-Hub and the open-access community.
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 and help me to widen the audience.