Aircraft Technology, Integration and Operations

Balloons support space flight, internet communications, scientific research

The Balloon Systems Technical Committee supports development and application of free-floating systems and technologies for buoyant flight in the stratosphere and atmospheres of other planets.

Balloon systems experienced significant advances and set records this year. Oregon-based Near Space Corp. continued development of its High Altitude Shuttle System, or HASS, a balloon-launched glider designed to support airborne research and enhanced payload recovery. Work this year aimed to create a research-grade microgravity platform by flying repeated parabolic profiles during HASS’ gliding descent at near-transonic speeds in the stratosphere. In August, the company attempted a microgravity flight by dropping the HASS from 94,000 feet over the Oregon coast. Although the glider went transonic and suffered a control loss during this attempt, it descended safely into the coast range. Numerous previous HASS flights have been released from as high as 92,000 feet, landing autonomously back at the launch site, Near Space Corp.’s Tillamook UAS Test Range. More flights are expected in early 2019.

In June, Loon, a company developing stratospheric balloons for internet communications, became an independent business within Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The next month, Loon announced its first commercial deal, providing balloon-based internet service to parts of Kenya starting in 2019. In August, the company flew seven of its balloons at 60,000 feet in the stratosphere, testing its network technology across 1,000 kilometers of the western United States.

In August, France’s National Centre for Space Studies, or CNES, conducted a scientific zero-pressure balloon campaign with five launches from the Timmins stratospheric base in Ontario, Canada. One of the balloons carried a pointing gondola dedicated to scientific payloads from the Canadian Space Agency. For the past three years, CNES has been preparing for a validation campaign for its 13-meter-diameter long-duration superpressure balloons designed to circumnavigate the equatorial belt. At the beginning of 2019, six balloons will launch from the Republic of Seychelles with the goal of flying for more than three months and circumnavigating the equator two to three times. This work is in support of the Stratéole-2 project, a study of coupling processes between the upper troposphere and the lower stratosphere in the deep tropics.

The Swedish Space Corp., or SSC, launched the Italian Space Agency’s Olimpo scientific mission in July from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway. The project aims to map the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect that occurs in galaxy clusters. The balloon reached a float altitude of 124,000 feet as it flew west over the Arctic Ocean, Greenland and Canada. New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory provided mission support equipment. SSC commanded the balloon to land on Ellesmere Island, Canada, on July 19, after the balloon had been in the air for six days.

NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program flew three balloons carrying large scientific payloads (AESOP-Lite, PMC Turbo and HiWind) from the Swedish Space Corp.’s Esrange Facility in Kiruna, Sweden, to northern Canada over 5½ days in June. NASA also launched two payloads from Palestine, Texas, that month and in August launched two 60 million-cubic-foot balloons from Fort Sumner, New Mexico. These “Big 60” stratospheric test flights carried a suspended load of 680 kilograms and set a sustainable-altitude record of 159,000 feet during the eight-hour flights. This design has only flown once before (in 2002) and is NASA’s largest zero-pressure balloon; its low-temperature film underwent extensive testing early this year at Wallops Flight Facility Balloon Research and Development Lab in Virginia. The Big 60 carried several experiments, including two student payloads in NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project and a larger, University of Arizona interplanetary cubesat-antenna experiment. These balloons promise new scientific opportunities by carrying heavy payloads at extremely high altitudes that are inaccessible by other means.

Contributors: Henry Cathey, Scott Coriell, Russ Dewey and André Vargas

Photo: Autonomous High Altitude Shuttle System, or HASS, glider being released from a balloon 94,000 feet above the Oregon coast. Credit: Near Space Corp.

Balloons support space flight, internet communications, scientific research