CSA STRATOS balloon program makes Timmins a scientific hub

High school students from the Timmins area participating in the STRATOS 2022 campaign, posing in front of the balloon containing their experiments. Credit: Canadian Space Agency. (Aug. 18, 2022)

While low Earth orbit SmallSats are having a revolutionary effect on Earth observation, other approaches based on other technologies, like stratospheric balloons, have a role to play as well. At a media availability day on August 18, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) discussed the stratospheric balloon program (STRATOS) and the balloons’ important scientific and expanding role, and its value to the Timmins’ community. 

The CSA is spending all of August launching these instrument-laden stratospheric balloons. And as SpaceQ learned in an interview with Philippe Vincent, Mission Manager of STRATOS at the CSA, they’re more popular than ever. 

STRATOS started ten years ago in conjunction with France’s space agency, the Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). As population densification in France made it infeasible to launch there, CNES started looking for new launch locations. Timmins proved to be ideal, thanks to its wind speeds, precipitation, and available infrastructure. Since Canada’s previous balloon program under Environment Canada had ended in 2000, both the CSA and CNES saw it as a solid opportunity. So they arranged for a ten-year-long arrangement where, every year in August, scientists from around the world would come to Timmins in order to do science with balloons. 

Vincent explained that balloons are still “the only vehicle able to work in the stratosphere,” as aircraft fly too low, satellites fly too high, and rockets pass through it too quickly. They use “zero pressure” balloons; “gigantic balloons with tiny polyethylene film…about the size of a football field in width, but the biggest that class has is 800 thousand cubic metres and weighs about 1.2 tonnes,” carrying a instrument-laden gondola of up to 1.1 tonnes. 

Another big advantage for stratospheric balloons is instrument recovery and data retrieval. The flight train for the balloon has parachutes attached; when the balloon is ready to come down, they can use the parachutes to bring the balloon and the gondola safely down to Earth. This would be difficult-to-impossible for most satellites, which usually burn up on reentry and need to transmit all their data. The balloons have GPS trackers, making  recovery straightforward so long as you avoid populated areas and bodies of water, and Timmins is ideal partially because its distance from both makes retrieval more viable.

Stratospheric balloons at sunrise on the Timmins base. Credit: Canadian Space Agency. (Aug. 18, 2022)
Stratospheric balloons at sunrise on the Timmins base. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

These unique advantages are bringing in a lot of scientists, and Vincent said that over 90 scientists from Canada and Europe came to launch in Timmins this year. When asked about the experiments and instruments, Vincent said that the majority of them were focused on climate change, with many measuring greenhouse gases like methane, CO2 and water vapor. 

Other instruments are focused on astronomy, taking advantage of the flight train’s ability to rotate the gondola and keep it steadily facing in chosen directions. They’re quite effective at astronomy platforms: Vincent said that one team from the University of Toronto “published papers saying they got results as good as Hubble” from a balloon gondola 38 kilometres up. Still other experiments are what Vincent described as “technology demonstrations,” like a test bench with solar cells that was sent up this month.

When asked about the student/media event, Vincent said that it “went great…it’s always fun to see kids with lights in their eyes interested in science.” The event was coordinated with Science Timmins, who helped STRATOS by sending up daily weather balloons to gather the data needed to prepare for the larger scientific launches. He said “we found that it was a really good idea to have groups coming in so we could show them what we were doing.” They get to see the balloons, interact with the scientists, and see what a stratospheric balloon launch looks like.

This particular August marks the end of the original ten-year deal, and Vincent says they’re already working on the next one. It’s been a success, so much so that they may need to make some changes. Earlier launches would involve “groups of scientists working together on a single gondola and one instrument,” but with many of the scientists now bringing their own instruments, the number of teams and the size of the teams is rising quickly. Vincent said that “we decided for the next decade to invest in the base and expand it,” including a new payload integration facility.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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