Exploring the Skies: The Evolution of Stratospheric Ballooning with Aerostar

In our latest “The Race to Near Space” podcast episode, we investigate the fascinating world of stratospheric ballooning with Russ Van Der Werff, the Vice President and Chief Balloon Evangelist at Aerostar, a HAPS Alliance member.

Origins at General Mills

Aerostar’s story begins with an unexpected twist – at General Mills during the mid-20th century. During the post-war era, engineers at General Mills, known for their cereal products, ventured into high-altitude flight research. As the company shifted focus, some passionate engineers founded Raven in 1956, which later evolved into Aerostar in the ’80s. The legacy of high-altitude work initiated in the ’50s continues to this day.

Venturing into the Stratosphere

Russ sheds light on historic U.S. government research projects like Project Excelsior and Project Manhigh. These initiatives aimed to address challenges associated with high-altitude flight, testing parachute systems and exploring the upper atmosphere.

Collaborations with NASA

Russ highlights that Aerostar’s collaboration with NASA spans decades. From testing cosmic ray impacts on living organisms to launching telescopes to study deep space, Aerostar has played a crucial role in advancing scientific research. Recent projects include supporting NASA’s SuperBIT telescope, providing Hubble-like imagery from the stratosphere.

Diverse Government Applications

Beyond NASA, Russ shares how Aerostar collaborates with various government agencies. For instance, they work with the U.S. Forest Service on wildfire detection, using balloons to provide infrared imagery and communication support for firefighters in remote areas.

Advantages of Stratospheric Ballooning

Russ emphasizes the unique advantages of HAPS stratospheric balloons. These balloons can reach sizes of 800 feet, carrying payloads of several hundred pounds. Their longevity, with a record flight of 336 days, distinguishes them from traditional aircraft and satellites.  The most recent advancement, called the Thunderhead system, can navigate around the world and carry out a wide variety of mission types for months at a time.

Monitoring and Navigation

Monitoring the health of balloons over extended periods involves predicting factors like helium leakage and battery degradation. Navigating stratospheric winds, a critical aspect, has seen significant advancements. Russ reveals how Aerostar employs machine learning and historical data to optimize balloon trajectories, providing accuracy and flexibility.

Future Endeavors

Looking ahead, Russ spotlights how Aerostar envisions HAPS stratospheric balloons as rapid-deployment alternatives in emergencies, such as solar storms affecting satellites. The ability to connect, protect, and save lives remains at the forefront of Aerostar’s mission.

Listen to this episode on your preferred podcast platform, Apple or Spotify. Subscribe to the “The Race to Near Space” podcast to stay updated on the latest developments and adventures in the stratosphere.