3/08/2017

Successful 1st trial of PACKMAN-B


A first trial of a balloon version of the Particle Counter K-index Magnetic Anomaly (PACKMAN-B) took place last 30th July in Córdoba, Spain, on board a balloon launched from the city airport. Everything went as expected, and PACKMAN-B provided a first set of data which, even though won’t be valuable from a scientific point of view because of the latitude, have demonstrated the readiness and robustness of the instrument. The flight was scheduled by Zero2Infinity, a Spanish company devoted to the rendering of balloons and reusable rockets flights for the space industry and for scientific purposes.

The balloon about being released. Credits: Juan F. Buenestado

Introducing PACKMAN

PACKMAN-B is a flight model developed by the Atmospheric Science Group and framed in the wider PACKMAN project, intended to monitor the type, amount, and energy of the space radiation reaching the lower layers of the atmosphere and the surface on the vicinity of the magnetic north pole, as well as their temporal variability and geographical distribution in the arctic region.
Currently there are very few monitoring points for this kind of radiation, providing scarce and fragmented information about this phenomenon, whose influence on weather and climatic processes is important though almost completely unknown. The available data are not standardized and hence difficult to handle, and they are generally not public, meanwhile those to be gathered by means of PACKMAN will be delivered in real time, and will be input in public planetary databases with the appropriate structure to ease their analysis by everyone interested.
The project comprises the design and making of two different versions of the device: PACKMAN-G, intended to be settle on the ground, and PACKMAN-B, to take measurements from balloons. This way, it will be possible to define a vertical profile of the incoming space radiation. Whereas the G version is already working at Luleå University, this has been the very first trial of the B one, which poses specific design requirements. This flight, although carried out in a location without interest from the geomagnetic point of view at first and no significant information about space weather was expected to be gathered, has served to check the performance of the B version, both regarding its functioning under the environmental conditions in the stratosphere and its mechanical behaviour in the touchdown after the flight.
The final goal of the project is to establish a surface network of PACKMAN stations in the arctic region, complemented by systematic measurements from balloons, to monitor the different parameters determining the so-called space weather. A considerable dataset to fill the gap of knowledge about their influence in atmospheric processes (such as cloud nucleation), and to climate evolution in the long term within a region that is especially sensitive to the climate change will be contributed this way.

PACKMAN-B ready to be put in its flight box
. Credits: Juan F. Buenestado

After a first cancelation due to technical problems in the balloon, PACKMAN was finally launched, gathering data throughout the 4 hours the flight lasted in total. It reached a maximum height of some 28 km, when the balloon entered the “flotation” stage. During this phase, the instrument stood extreme conditions of temperature (up to -50º C) and pressure (16 mbar) without showing malfunctioning.
On this occasion, in addition, the instrument included an air temperature sensor (ATS) similar to those to be mounted on HABIT with the aim of testing the method to retrieve wind parameters from temperature values which is going to be applied on Mars.
The temperature measured by the ATS, which was exposed to the ambient during the flight out of the isolation box covering PACKMAN (the aforementioned temperature borne by the instrument was that inside the box), reached -65º C, though the important point regarding this added element will be the analysis of the thermal distribution along it, and the feasibility of inferring the air flux around it in order to eventually figure out the wind regime.

The flight providers

The Spanish company Zero2Infinity was founded in 2009 with the initial goal of designing a balloon system to offer touristic flights to the limit of the stratosphere (the atmospheric layer between 10 and 50 km of altitude). With this intention, they set in motion the development of the BLOON project, consisting basically of a helium balloon which elevates a passenger cabin up to some 40 km, above 99% of the atmosphere, from where they can contemplate the spherical shape of the Earth floating in the deep darkness of space.
During the ongoing development of BLOON, the members of the company appreciated the possibility of offering other services by taking advantage of the technology the project requires. Thus, they started the service ELEVATE, available since some years ago, intended to provide a launch system to perform tests of commercial satellites components or to carry Earth observation instrumentation (as has been the case of PACKMAN) among others.
Although the company is settled in Barcelona, they usually operate in Córdoba because of the exceptional conditions for balloon launches the city offers. The wind is the most determinant factor for this type of flights, and Córdoba shows a very gentle and steady wind regime, allowing to accurately forecast the traverse of the balloon and its landing point by applicating atmospheric models specifically adapted to this use.