A few fellow astronomers took part in the Stratospheric Balloon Workshop organized by the Canadian Space Agency at its headquarters on October 29 and 30th. The primary goal of the workshop was to present the details of an agreement recently signed with the French Space Agency (CNES). CNES which has a long history in ballooning (it all started with the Montgolfier brothers back in the 18th century!), was searching for a new launch site at mid-latitudes in the northern hemisphere since their France-based site became impractical due to surrounding population densification. At the same time in Canada, CSA president Steve MacLean wanted for a long time to connect the CSA with the Canadian ballooning community and revive our domestic balloon launch capabilities. Under the terms of the new agreement, CSA is building and will operate a launch site in Timmins, Ontario for CNES (CNES provides its own balloon operation support equipment). In exchange, Canada will get to fly 5 payloads per year on CNES balloons on any site in the world they launch from for the next 10 years. This makes for 50 payloads to be launched until 2023! This is probably more science payloads than Canada has sent to space to date. The five payloads per year cover the following masses: 1x 1000 kg, 1x 500 kg and, 3x 50 kg as opportunity piggyback payloads on European balloon missions. Astronomers should know that modern balloons can operate for several weeks, some at altitudes of up to 40 km, hovering above more than 99% of the atmosphere. There is no any cheaper access to the unfiltered clear view of space!
CSA intends to fund payload developments through regular AO of the FAST (Flight for the Advancement of Science and Technology) program which had its first round in 2011 and disposes of an annual budget of roughly 2M$/yr. This program offers to PIs in Canadian Universities grants ranging from 60 to 450 k$ spread over 2-3 years to cover for salary (post-docs, grad students), material and travel charges to run the experiment and conduct some data analysis. Stratospheric balloons have historically been used to conduct astronomy, atmospheric, climate and earth observation research as well as being used for technology demonstration in space. Hence a fair share of astronomy related proposals are expected. It is also important to point out that the FAST program is devoted mainly to academia to train future highly qualified personnel and generate new ideas. Other programs exist for industry-related technology demonstration. The next release of the FAST AO should occur sometime next spring. But plan ahead! The last round saw 50 proposals of which only 10 were selected. As a result, four Canadian payloads are planned to be launched for the CNES 2014 flight campaign in Timmins, of which two are related to astrophysics.
I was somehow surprised to see so few astronomers in the crowd (3-4) which motivated me into writing this article. I sincerely believe that Canadian astronomers should take advantage of these "prepaid" flight opportunities and consider using space for niche observations or demonstration of capabilities. Some very relevant science cases may often be too specific or require too little observing time to qualify for a dedicated space mission. In such cases, balloon is likely the best alternative. Moreover, in this era of financial cutbacks at all government levels, such an opportunity cannot be overlooked.
You can find more information on the FAST program and the workshop conclusions on the CSA website or by contacting Martin Lebeuf (email@example.com), director of the program and workshop chairman.
I will also be happy to answer any questions you may have on the technicalities associated with flying your desired payload onboard a stratospheric balloon.