Today new infrastructure for launching high-altitude balloons from Timmins, Ontario is being unveiled. Who cares? You should, if you care about having a basic human capacity created and maintained in Canada for doing science and technology in space.
Ballooning is not new to Canada. In fact, many of Canada’s first wave of space scientists “cut their teeth” on space instrumentation using balloons as platforms for doing experiments studying the Earth’s atmosphere. But, as it often happens, programs evolved and new priority areas required more funds than originally planned and one of the first things to go was this ballooning capability.
For the last few years, under the vision of (former) Canadian Space Agency president Steve Maclean, CSA has been working on bringing ballooning back to Canada; in a smart and different way.
First of all, why is ballooning important? Ballooning comes as close to an orbiting satellite mission as you can get, without launching into orbit (sounding rockets are also an important and complementary system). Balloons allow you to look down at the Earth, out into the atmosphere, and up to the universe to make scientific measurements, and also to test, qualify, and practice using instrumentation. These balloon systems are quite impressive; they can fly to over 40km in altitude (130 000 feet), carry two tonnes of payload, and the balloons (usually filled with helium) can be the size of an entire football field. At those heights, stratospheric measurements can be made and a lot of the atmosphere that gets in the way of making certain types of astronomical measurements is below you. Flight times can vary from hours to even weeks, sometimes even making circumpolar flights.
The French space agency CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) has been launching balloons for decades. They have been launching them from all over the world in a sustained fashion, including many from Europe. A balloon launch and operations team is not something that be created “as required”; it needs a minimum level of activity to maintain its capability to operate safely and efficiently. Luckily, CNES has continued to keep this capability going.
For atmospheric measurements (probably the most popular experiment on balloon platforms), the latitude at launch really matters. Here’s the issue: launching from Europe from mid-altitudes (35 - 60 degrees North of the equator) has become pretty much impossible, because of increased safety requirements and increased population density. CNES (or anyone) cannot take the risk of a balloon system failing and falling to the ground and injuring someone. Here’s the smart part - Canada can help!
What CSA is doing is creating a partnership with CNES to bring the CNES ballooning experience and capacity to Canada. CNES needs a launch facility at mid-latitudes over a sparsely-populated area and CSA needs to provide a program to build the capacity in Canada for space missions in the future. A match made in the stratosphere.
Why Timmins? A joint CNES-CSA team carried out a detailed study of locations in Canada that took into account latitude, winds at different altitudes at different times of the year, logistical constraints, airspace access restrictions, precipitation averages, and a number of other factors including the cost of setting up the launch infrastructure. They ran simulations of flights using meteorological data, and determined that Timmins optimizes all of the factors. This will allow for long flights at more times of the year, it has clearer weather, an existing airport infrastructure, in an area that is sparsely populated, and a nice collaboration from the local authorities. A nice perk of Timmins is that locals speak French, making the CNES teams feel more “at home” when they visit during launch campaigns.
The agreement will allow Canadians to use some of the payload capacity of the French balloons when they fly in Canada (or anywhere else in the world), and it will give CNES the capability to offer Europeans more flights at mid-latitudes.
Sustained, regular access to suborbital platforms such as balloons (and analogue sites) will support the development of the next generation of Canadian space scientists and engineers. Just like in the laboratory, not every experiment is successful, and making mistakes and correcting those mistakes is part of the training process. Unfortunately space missions do not happen often enough and risk of failure is minimized, so it is difficult to involve students. With this program in place, the idea is that students will be able to go through the entire process of flying a space mission: design, build, test, qualify, fly, gather data, operate an instrument, analyze data, make mistakes and try again, and make conclusions, within a typical master’s or PhD cycle.
In addition to supporting student development, this platform can be used by the larger community to carry out needed atmospheric and astronomical measurements, test out hardware to be flown in space, or make concurrent measurements in order to calibrate data being gathered by satellites.
A series of qualification test flights need to be carried out before the first large payload flies later in 2013 or early in 2014.