Europe revives balloons to transport platforms into the stratosphere | technology

Construction of an LTA research balloon at a factory in San Francisco.
Construction of an LTA research balloon at a factory in San Francisco.LTA search

Technology does not always look ahead. Sometimes it is necessary to look back on the past to bring back ideas that failed because they were not the time. Almost a century since the airship disaster Hindenburg, which caught fire over New Jersey (USA) and killed 36 people. This incident led to the conversion of balloons to recreational or observational uses using small-scale technologies. The European Commission and six defense ministries believe it is time to take back these aircraft and have allocated €63.5 million for the EuroHAPS project. High altitude platform systems), which is already developing stratospheric demonstrations (prototypes for testing all future device systems) that lead to steerable, ecological and recoverable balloons to improve communication capabilities and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. English). Spain will be the base for two of the models, which are scheduled to make their first flights within a year.

Stratospheric balloons are large unmanned aircraft that use a constant volume of high-pressure helium and are capable of reaching the second main layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, where science, communication, security and defense work can be carried out. This region of space, at an altitude of about 20 kilometers, is an underutilized environment, though ideal for long-duration missions with recoverable instrumentation and communications links.

NASA and dozens of companies have already begun to develop them and the European Union does not want to be left behind, which is why it has awarded three models contracted to Thales Alenia Space to manufacture, deploy and operate them, which has collected about thirty. entities from 11 countries.

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Recreation of “Stratopos” developed by Thales Alenia Space.TAS

One of them is stratopos, the airship that will start the tests from Stratoport is being built in Fuerteventura (Spain). It is a stratospheric helium balloon that will operate at an altitude of between 18 and 20 kilometers propelled by electricity generated from 1,000 square meters of solar panels. The final model will have a length of 140 meters (twice the first model), four 5 kW engines and 250 kg of payload capacity.

The Italian Center for Space Research (CIRA for short in Italian) has developed and patented the Hybrid high altitude airship or tactical HAPS, a hybrid airship capable of sustaining itself through self-buoyancy and aerodynamic forces generated by the shape of its wings, much like an inflatable aircraft.

Autonomous stratospheric globe system (Independent stratospheric balloon system-ASBS) by the German entities ESG and TAO and involves the development of three altitude-manageable helium aircraft. Its model is very similar to traditional hot air balloons, but with a design that allows control of the trajectory.

The three prototypes are already being developed in parallel because each model offers its own characteristics of useful life, load capacity and operability to respond to different uses, from surveillance by means of laser radars (lidar), even in environments covered by vegetation, to high-speed communications for security missions. In this sense, six defense ministries support the initiative.

The crisis of Chinese balloons over North American territory has made these devices an object of interest. But José Antonio Alvarez de Arcaia, director of strategy at Thales Alenia Space, maintains that the EU’s work is much older. “We have been working on the project for many years, since 2016, but the publicity was good for us,” he jokes.

“We are focused on developing an autonomous green aircraft that, unlike the Chinese balloon, has the ability to handle: it can follow the trajectories we want or stay in a certain position for a year in the stratosphere. These HAPS platforms are pseudo-satellites, that is, they are located in the middle of the path between a drone and a satellite,” he explains.

The operational advantage of stratospheric balloons is that they can remain above a point continuously and the ability to capture images with simpler optics makes them particularly useful for observation and tracking of objects or for deploying high capacity communications bands at a specific location. time. “You can do anything you can think of,” Alvarez points out.

In addition, they have infinitely lower operating costs than missile systems and are equipped with high-tech flexible solar cells that power electric motors to correct the situation. The balloon and its payload can be returned to Earth for maintenance and restarting.

“A lot can be done with 100 days of swelling. It’s like experimenting with satellites at a tenth of the cost.” nature Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Debbie Fairbrother, chief of the Balloon Program Office at NASA, shares this view: “Hyperpressure balloon technology is a real game-changer for conducting cutting-edge science at the edge of space at a fraction of the cost” of flying in space. Work planned for this year includes a mission to study galaxy clusters and another to analyze high-energy particles from outside our galaxy.”

Alvarez Arcaya defends their safety above all: “It is one of the most important issues. The prototype will demonstrate the effectiveness of all the systems in the take-off, trajectory control and landing phases. Also the security devices, including the self-destruct device. When we lower it to a close level, always at sea, we will activate Self-destruct device, which is a key aspect if at any time control is lost and it is necessary to drop it in a safe area.”

Fuerteventura will become the launch base for two models (stratopos and ASBS), while it will be Sardinia for the other prototype. If all tests go well, the balloon will be launched in 2025 with three contract missions related to taking pictures, detecting mobile networks, and coastwatching.

None of the prototypes were designed to transport goods between two points or to carry passengers. To carry 250 kilograms, a platform of 140 meters is required, so at the moment it is not very effective in the heavy cargo transportation segment.

Lighter Than Air (LTA) research develops electric airships that it hopes will be able to operate in 2025 in humanitarian work. But Karl Taussig, the company’s chief technology officer, does not rule out the possibility of expanding the activity. “A blimp is something between sea freight and air freight,” he argues.

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