To Chase an Eclipse
Being In The Shadow Of The Moon At The Edge Of Space
A Brief Introduction To The 2017 Solar Eclipse HELIOS Mission
By: David Jankowski
CEO/SATINS & Helios Flight Crew Member
An estimated 530 million people watched the landing of Apollo 11 on July 20th 1969 as Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquility on the surface of the Moon, making it the first time in history humankind had landed on the surface of another planetary body. This year, the NASA Megacast for The Great American Solar Eclipse is expected to have over 500 million people watching, as events for another first in aeronautical history unfold. It is said that with every eclipse, something ends, and something else begins. I think that’s a fitting statement for this years eclipse, as it may just bring an end to the current limits of commercial space travel as it’s known today, and unleash the beginnings of an unbound age where “Destiny Favors The Adventurous” spirit of the average common citizen, who dares to dream of one day, exploring the dark skies above. On August 21st 2017 the SATINS team will, for the first time in 234 years of ballooning history, attempt to ascend to an altitude higher than any human who has come before - 140,000 feet or burst!. Our mission - is to live stream a total solar eclipse via the NASA Mega Cast as a participating team in the Eclipse Ballooning Project hosted by the Montana Space Grant Consortium/Montana State University. As part of our flight, and in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Penn: Associate Astronomer for the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, AZ. We will be conducting an experiment to measure the changes in sky brightness above 30km, where the very rotation of our vehicle will play an integral role. We will also be carrying various student experiments from around the country, and in addition, our mission goals will also include recording our flight, and the eclipse in HD 360 VR. The SATINS team for the eclipse ballooning project have chosen to attempt a manned flight to chase the eclipse. First, as a promotional effort to support STEM high altitude educational manned and unmanned programs. Second, for scientific study, and third, to bring-about commercial near-space tourism. It’s no secret that for most who witness an eclipse for the first time, experience a kind of life changing transformation. Dr. Kate Russo, “an Aussie eclipse chasing psychologist” explains it best on her website: Being In The Shadow Dr. Russo writes; “Moments before totality a wall of darkness comes creeping towards you at speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour - this is the shadow of the Moon. You feel alive. You feel in awe. You feel a primitive fear. Then - totality. In this moment there is just you and the Universe”.
To be part of such an historical event that is to be shared with so many people around the world I can’t help but wonder - will this eclipse, and our shared experience bring us closer together as a people, where for a moment, the borders of color, religion, hate, and fear seem to no longer exist, and only the Universe, and our place within it, are all that matters.
“It’s Not Rocket Science - It’s Balloon Science”
My very good friend Kevin Carrico with whom I had the pleasure of working on ICARUS - A Third Man Records project “The First Ever Vinyl Record Played In Space” launched in July 2016 often said “It’s not rocket science - It’s balloon science”.
Balloon Science is very different from Rocket Science, and is often referred to as “The Poor Man’s Space Program” resulting in far lower development costs, shorter assembly times, etc. For the concept of HELIOS we decided to enlist Kevin’s experience to design a simple, lightweight, but strong capsule-like frame with an impact shield to support our landing. To simplify this design further, we chose to incorporate man-rated space suits. Space Suits allowed us to keep the weight, cost, and development time of the vehicle down considerably during the entire build and assembly phase of this project, without having to worry about things like the need for an airtight pressurized hull, and most importantly, without jeopardizing the safety of the crew. Everything necessary to build a reliable flight platform incorporates 100% off-the-shelf technology. Even our impact supportive seating came straight out of NASCAR. A sufficient parachute system, balloon, and lifting gas are all common resources and proven technologies, and our electronics for collecting flight data, cutting down the balloon, releasing ballast are all basic components that have been perfected over the last century.
Heading up our engineering team is Dr Patrick Navin - A former Space Shuttle Engineer. John Kernkamp is our Senior Electronics Lab Technician - Kevin Carrico will also act as flight and safety coordinator once HELIOS is in the air. Our Spaceflight Meteorologist is Ella Dorsey, an on-air meteorologist for CBS-CH46 News in Atlanta GA. Her role in Mission Control will be to provide weather forecasts and briefings, pre and post spaceflight weather analyses, etc. Our ground crews for vehicle prep, launch, and recovery are all professionals in the various fields of aerospace.
Test, Test, and then Test some more
Like with all projects, it’s obvious you would want to test every system as much as possible, because the more you do, you learn something valuable every time that lends to strengthening your chances for success. For this mission, we have multiple systems that all need to be thoroughly tested. I won’t go into all of them in this article but for the purpose of testing our streaming capabilities for the NASA Megacast, and also to provide CBS with an example quality of our live feed, we have chosen to first, fly just the electronics equipment, and test them out on another spectacular event (a link to that live feed will be made available on the SATINS website), the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks Alaska, which will also be recorded in HD 360 VR so we hope you will tune in and become a part of that flight broadcast as well.
The flight and recovery testing of HELIOS will begin in May and run through to early august. We are not expecting to have any live feeds of those unmanned test flights available, however, we may release video clips throughout the testing phase to help keep everyone up to date on our program.
Rewards, do not come without risk
In the history of humanity's attempts for reaching the highest altitudes, weather has been the leading cause of many flight failures, and has even contributed to the loss of life. Over the last 155 years there have been 23 manned stratospheric flights since 1862 - 31 explorers in all, with 6 recorded deaths. Within the past 50 years, there have been 9 stratospheric flights, with the most recent being Felix Baumgartner in 2012 and Alan Eustace in 2014.
For a typical high altitude balloon launch you will generally have a 10 day launch window, and this is usually because you are waiting for the perfect weather conditions to safely launch your platform. For the Helios flight team, we are proceeding without that luxury. If the weather at our main launch location in Wyoming is unfavorable and unsafe, we will be forced to travel to Nebraska to make a second attempt there. We will only have enough time to move our flight team, ground crew, and all our equipment one time, so it’s literally, all-or-nothing in “Chasing The Eclipse”
Once we are in the air the ascent time to reach our intended float altitude of 140,000ft will take roughly 2 hours. We will remain at float altitude for another 2 to 3 hours followed by a 1 hour descent. Sounds easy enough right? But it’s not so simple, because the eclipse will last for only a few minutes, and if we are not already at altitude prior to the start of the eclipse, our mission will be a failure. If we reach float altitude in time but our cameras fail to record - the mission is a failure. If we reach altitude and our cameras record but we are unable to live stream the eclipse - the mission is a failure, and you get the idea for the seemingly unlimited number of challenges that accompany this flight.
The wind conditions at time of launch need to be at 7 mph or lower, no exceptions or people can die, plain, and simple logic. The wind conditions also need to be favorable at a precise time, so that our 2 hour ascent puts us at float altitude well ahead of the eclipse, giving us time to do a final systems check on our oxygen supply, the vehicle, cameras, and live feed.
It should be noted here that we do have an option for getting up to altitude well in advance of the eclipse, and to get around any potential weather issues on flight day that could prevent a launch, and that is by taking full advantage of our balloon. It is technically possible to remain at altitude for periods longer than 24 hours if necessary. NASA has kept balloons at altitude for up to 55 days so, as it’s not a desirable scenario for this flight, the option is on the table if needed, and we can begin looking into that option 180 hours prior to launch.
However, an extended stay at float altitude opens up additional risks to crew safety. It adds additional supplies, oxygen, and weight to the vehicle, just the need to eat presents many challenges. Shortly following the end of the eclipse it will be time for us to separate the vehicle from the balloon. Once separation occurs we will then experience zero gravity as we fall back towards the Earth. Once our vehicle begins to enter a thicker part of the atmosphere (should take about 20 to 40 seconds from the moment of cut down) our three parachutes, which will already be in a pre deployed position above HELIOS will begin to capture enough air to open up and start to slow down our descent. As we continue getting closer to the Earth we will then release ballast to slow our
descent further until we land at speeds between 8 to 15 mph.
“Destiny Favors The Adventurous”