PALESTINE — As NASA retires its space shuttle fleet and turns its attention toward Mars, testing of new technology on how to land heavy, large equipment on the planet proceeds at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility based here.
The balloon facility is working on a project that will launch a rocket and deploy decelerators — a big inflatable balloon that will slow a vehicle down and send a parachute out the back. The balloon facility is scheduled to test the technology to land heavy things on Mars in Hawaii next year.
In a separate project, the balloon facility is working on a new type of balloon that will conceivably fly as many as 100 days, which will be tested in a flight from Sweden this summer.
The most time scientific balloons have been aloft so far is 42 days, and the extended duration missions will be advantageous to scientific research, Danny Ball, Palestine site manager, said.
Scientific balloon flights conducted by the Palestine facility already have made startling discoveries, Ball said.
The most heralded experiment was known as the boomerang flight in the 1990s that looked at how the universe was formed. A major finding, it verified that the universe was flat and continually expanding, Ball said.
A cosmic ray experiment may have detected the first indirect detection of dark matter, which is a big mystery to astronomers, Ball said. In the mid-1980s, an ozone hole was discovered over the Antarctic continent.
Detector work the balloon facility did in the late 1980s and early 1990s eventually wound up on the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite and scientists on the project won the Nobel Prize for physics.
Despite the shutdown of the nation’s space shuttle program, the balloon facility’s business is ramping up, and “we’re probably as healthy as we’ve been in 25 or 30 years,” Ball said, The facility has good support through NASA, he added.
Most of what the balloon facility does is in the area of astrophysics and astronomy — cosmic ray astronomy, infrared astronomy, cosmic microwave background, some optical astronomy and ultraviolet astronomy.
Its customers are university professors, scientists and graduate students. They obtain grant funding from NASA to build experiments and bring their instruments and experiments to the balloon facility as payloads on flights of unmanned, helium-filled balloons.
The balloon facility works on projects for major universities including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, California Institute of Technology, Washington University in St. Louis, The University of Texas, Pennsylvania State University and Louisiana State University.
The National Science Foundation established the scientific balloon facility near Palestine in 1963, and it was later designated the National Scientific Balloon Facility.
There was only one building and a launch pad initially, but in the late 1970s, a new launch pad and a new staging building were built. Since then, other buildings were added and it became a NASA facility in 1982.
Its name was changed to Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in honor of the Space Shuttle Columbia and crew that were lost on Feb. 1, 2003, over the East Texas skies during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
About 20 years ago, a NASA safety analysis determined the population density in East Texas had grown to the point where it was less than safe to conduct operations here except in summer months. Balloons launched from Palestine always fly westward in the summer and can be brought down safely in West Texas where there is low population.
Consequently, there’s usually only one launch per year from Palestine, but the balloon facility has a total of 15 to 20 launches a year, primarily in Australia, Antarctica, Sweden and New Mexico. Launch sites also include Greenland, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, New Zealand and Sicily.
“Since the facility was founded, we’ve flown about 2,300 balloons at 62 sites all over the world,” Ball said.
Officials are proud of the facility’s safety record. A launch crew member has never been significantly injured, and there’s never been a single public injury associated with any phase of a balloon launch, flight or termination, according to information from the facility.
Engineers, technicians, meteorologists, pilots, the flight manager and others who support balloon flights reside mostly in the Palestine area but travel several months each year all over the world for the launches and recovery operations. The balloon facility has about 80 employees.
None of them are government employees. Instead they all work for New Mexico State University. For almost 25 years, the university’s Physical Science Lab has won competitive bid contracts to manage the balloon facility, making it a government-owned, contractor-operated facility. The contract is administered by the Balloon Program Office at Wallops Flight Facility of Goddard Space Flight Center.
The balloon facility’s purpose is pure, basic research, Ball said. Balloon flight may seem antiquated, he acknowledged, but it’s much cheaper than flying experiments on a satellite at a cost from $300 million to $8 billion.
Balloons can get the instruments into the same environment above the earth’s atmosphere where measurements of instruments are not affected by the atmosphere like they would if a telescope was on the ground, Ball said.
A specially designed launch vehicle that weighs about 50 tons and moves about 13 miles an hour picks up the scientific payload. The payload is suspended between jaws and the flight train and balloon extend behind. During launch, the balloon is released and comes up overhead. The vehicle is maneuvered directly underneath the balloon or slightly ahead. The driver pushes a button and the jaws swing open so that the payload is released.
The high-altitude scientific balloons are made in Sulphur Springs by the Aerostar Co. of extremely thin, fragile polyethylene film, about the thickness of an ordinary sandwich bag, then brought to the Palestine facility and later shipped wherever launches are planned.
However, the balloon facility performs a variety of mechanical tests in its quality assurance lab of the material the company uses and monitors the quality of the balloons being manufactured by Aerostar.
The balloon is only partially inflated on the ground but expands to its full size aloft. The balloons expand in the atmosphere to volumes up to 40 million cubic feet, nearly the size of the Houston Astrodome.
When the balloon is pulled out, the plastic is about 650 feet long. It’s made in gores and there’s 25 miles of heat seals. A big balloon might have as many as 190 panels. One balloon cost about $250,000 and can only be used one time. The facility has about $6 million to $7 million worth of balloons stored on its premises.
Once the balloon is inflated with helium and launched, suspended about 620 feet below is a parachute and hanging from the parachute is the scientific payload.
The nylon parachute purchased from Aerostar ranges in size from 46 feet to 159 feet for the largest payloads.
Mark Cobble, flight operations supervisor, said, “We do a lot of unique rigging to make a parachute an integral part of our flight train. It entails building a lot of cables, stretching the parachute out, adding wiring, performing pull tests (of) integrity and structure of the parachute and etcetera so they are ready for balloon flight when scientists are ready.”
He added, “There’s a variety of other things we do too; we provide all the mechanical integration of the science payload.” The balloon facility also builds a crush pad designed to absorb some of the energy so that the frame or gondola doesn’t take it directly when the payload hits the earth.
A terminating fitting between the parachute and the balloon has an explosive device that brings the balloon down at conclusion of the flight. A command is sent from a ground station to separate the pa load from the balloon, according to NASA information. Connected to the terminating fitting is the balloon itself, and on top of the balloon is a helium valve that opens at the end of the flight as a secondary measure to terminate the balloon.
After it hits the ground, a recovery team guided by aircraft drives to the impact site and gathers up the parachute lying on the ground, picks up the payload with a truck with a retractable boom, puts it on a trailer and secures it for transportation.
Pilots guide them to another location of the balloon.
“We use tongs to pick up the plastic and drive it to the nearest landfill for disposal,” Cobble said.
While balloons must be thrown away after one flight, the parachutes can sometimes be reused for as many as 10 or 15 flights.
Surface winds for a launch cannot exceed 6 to 7 mph in the first 200 vertical feet. From 200 to 1,000 feet, the winds must be less than 12 mph. From top to bottom, winds must be in a constant direction since any shift in variation or speed during inflation can shred a balloon, according to balloon facility information.
“Depending on where you are in the world, coming up with that combination of weather can be difficult and sometimes there are delays in launch for a week, 10 days or as long as two weeks,” the information states. Meteorologists monitor weather conditions with a facility crew on standby to determine favorable weather and times for a specific launch window.
It takes only 15 to 20 seconds to launch a scientific balloon, and in about two hours, the balloon and payload arrive at the edge of space, riding westerly upper atmosphere winds and gathering data before returning to earth.
Telemetry provides the ability to send and receive data and control functions to and from the payload.
“One of the other things we do in addition to flying the balloons so that scientists don’t have to develop all their own systems (is) we supply the electronic systems that bring data back down from the balloon.
Also you can send commands up to the balloon to their instruments and also to control the balloon,” Ball said.
For long-duration flights, there are multiple information streams of data coming down and received on the ground and received through satellites. “A lot of what we fly are telescopes. They send commands up to the box and that will control where the telescope is pointing,” Ball said. A lot of the electrical engineers who test the equipment work out of the balloon facility’s test and evaluation center.
Since it can be very cold or very warm where the balloon flies above the earth‘s atmosphere, the balloon facility tests a lot of the components in a thermal vacuum chamber that looks like a vault to make sure they will work when they reach that altitude.
Because missions flown from Antarctica and Sweden go out of telemetry range from the launch site, commands are sent and all the data is received through satellite at the balloon facility and flights are controlled from Palestine. Personnel monitor the flights from a control center around the clock, receiving scientific data and sending it where the scientists want it to go.
Scientists come here from around the world preparing for a flight. The facility gets extensive attention in the national media, Ball said, including articles in Nature magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American, Space Flight and other major publications.
“At science conferences, if you mention Palestine, Texas, you’d be surprised how many people know where it is because of our facility,” Ball said.
The facility has an estimated 1,000 visitors annually, including many school tours.