Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blowing up the balloon: old technology gains new life in space exploration and experimentation

By. J.G. Wallace

When you think of NASA and future space exploration, it’s typical initially to envision rockets and spaceships. A different vision is shaping up in the Oregon countryside, and it involves a high tech take on the first manned flying machine – the balloon.

NASA has been funding efforts at Near Space Corporation, a Tillamook, Ore., aerospace company that operates out of WW II era wooden blimp hangar at the former Tillamook Naval Air Station. Near Space Corp. isn’t a newcomer to the aerospace scene – but their work has remained largely out of the public eye due to their remote location, a small work force of about 15 employees, and a clientele of defense and corporate entities that have contracted with the company for experimental work

Near Space Corp. recently worked with NASA to develop and test materials that could be used on a balloon-borne probe to be sent to Titan, Saturn's biggest moon. Titan is the only moon in our solar system to have a dense atmosphere. An aerobot, or unmannered aerial robot, operating in Titan’s atmosphere would have to withstand temperatures around 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-180 degrees Celsius).

Near Space has plenty of interior space for their work, including a hanger with a 1,072-foot-long, 192-foot-high giant blimp bay. It is believed to be the largest timber structure in the world. Decommissioned in 1948, the facilities at Tillamook N.A.S. were initially designed for the K-Ship blimps that kept watch for enemy submarines in World War II. Since being decommissioned, the hanger facility has served as a lumber mill, a research facility for blimps and balloons, and the Tillamook Air Museum, which shares space with Near Space Corp.

A previous project for NASA involved testing components for an airplane that would be flown to Mars inside a spacecraft, then unfold itself and fly through the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. Near Space performed those tests by flying the payloads to high altitudes aboard a balloon and dropping them from 115,000 feet (35 kilometers), simulating the Martian atmosphere such a craft would have to fly through. NASA eventually decided not to pursue the ARES, or Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey mission, but has now contracted with Near Space Corp. on plans for the commercialization of suborbital research payloads.

Near Space Corp. was one of seven companies selected to receive NASA contracts totaling $10 million for suborbital flights. Over the next two years, Near Space and the six other companies will help NASA try out various technologies for getting experiments to the edge of space and back, according to MSNBC.

Traditional high-altitude balloons alone can't carry experiments all the way up to the 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space, but they can rise high enough to provide a good test for equipment that would eventually go farther out — like that Mars airplane or that Titan aerobot balloon. Typically, at the end of a high altitude balloon-borne experiment, the payload is returned on a parachute. Near Space is working to change that and is developing a new type of aircraft that would fly back to a landing strip once released from the balloon.

The company's 8-foot-wide High Altitude Shuttle System, or HASS, has already shown that it's capable of autonomous flight back to its base. Eventually, the HASS craft will be able to carry a 100-pound (45-pound) payload at altitudes of 100,000 feet (30 kilometers) for hours or days at a time. Initial development of the HASS was funded by the U.S. military for use as an aerial battle-coverage platform in Afghanistan and Iraq. NASA's grant would focus on the use of HASS and other balloon platforms for research and for testing high-altitude technologies.

NASA has awarded the company its first task order to integrate and fly space technology payloads. A company official told MSNBC that the initial funding would provide for about 15 aerial test campaigns. Another company funded by the recent contract, UP Aerospace, recently announced they had been contracted by NASA for up to 8 rocket launches over a two-year period.

Click here for more from the MSNBC Story.

Near Space Corporation

Click here for the Experimental Results for Titan Aerobot Thermo-Mechanical Subsystem Development.

No comments: