StratoSpera: Where Shuttles Dared
Lakes Trasimeno, Bolsena and Bracciano, in central Italy, imaged from 39,565 m by StratoSpera 3. The view faces southwest.

Lakes Trasimeno, Bolsena and Bracciano, in central Italy, imaged from 39,565 m by StratoSpera 3. The view faces southwest.

StratoSpera 3, the third flight of the StratoSpera Italian high altitude balloon project by Associazione ISAA, went way beyond our expectations. In late 2010 StratoSpera 1 reached a maximum altitude of 27,600 m in the stratosphere and took an eerie photo of its burst balloon. Not a bad maiden flight. The following spring StratoSpera 2 went lower, just 20,123 m, and didn’t break the 30,000 m altitude goal we had hoped for the project. StratoSpera 3, which we launched on September 10, 2011, did break that barrier. And blew our minds.

The StratoSpera 3 GPS unit recorded a maximum altitude of 39,614 m, which at the time was the fourth highest amateur balloon flight (see Records -> Altitude -> Highest) and is probably still the first in Italy. This is not far from the altitude range, around 45,000 m, where booster separation occurred during Shuttle launches. To put this in context, the highest altitude ever reached by a balloon is around 53,000 m.

There was another treat. Unlike similar launches to the highest altitudes back then, the StratoSpera 3 payload included a camera that took from 39.591 m the highest photo by an amateur ballon at the time. However, not everything went smoothly. The camera battery died shortly after the balloon burst, so we don’t have descent images.

The StratoSpera 4 launch is scheduled for May 26, 2012. We wouldn’t mind repeating and exceeding that carefully planned engineering process known as sheer luck. But, having temporarily satisfied our thirst for altitude, this time we will focus on experimentation.

Central-southern Italy, with lakes Trasimeno and Bolsena at right. The view faces south. Panorama created with StratoSpera 3 photos by Francesco Bonomi.

Central-southern Italy, with lakes Trasimeno and Bolsena at right. The view faces south. Panorama created with StratoSpera 3 photos by Francesco Bonomi.

We will use a cluster of three balloons, rather than a single one, to evaluate its ability to stabilize the payload. This would be useful, for example, for imaging in low lighting conditions. A wide field mini camera mounted in the upper section of the gondola facing upwards, code-named Polifemo (Polyphemus), will image the balloons to help study their dynamics. It will complement the set of environmental and engineering sensors (temperature, pressure, humidity, radiation, voltage, and more) we usually fly.

Polifemo is controlled by an Arduino board. It is the first experimental external payload connected via a specified interface to the BSM-2 on-board computer, running the BeRTOS open-source operating system, developed by our sponsor Develer. This architecture will support third-party payloads, which we hope to open to external collaborations for educational activities. And maybe bring them again where Shuttles dared.