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StratoSpera: Where Shuttles Dared

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.

A space organization mobile magazine created with Google Currents

A space organization mobile magazine created with Google Currents
The Associazione ISAA mobile magazine on Google Currents for Android on a Nexus S phone

The Associazione ISAA mobile magazine on Google Currents for Android on a Nexus S phone

I am a board member of ISAA, the Italian Space and Astronautics Association, which is a typical volunteer-run space enthusiast organization. We do a range of information, outreach and education activities including a space news portal, a podcast, events, and experimental projects such as high altitude balloon launches. Our content and updates on these activities are spread among a dozen ordinary web sites and online resources like video channels and photo albums.

Space enthusiasts often consume online content with smartphones and tablets. The use of mobile devices is actually growing so fast that in a few years they will outgrow traditional PCs and laptops. If you are a space tweep, I guess you are already well aware of this trend.

There are good apps for consuming online news in a mobile friendly way. The most popular are Flipboard, Zite and Pulse News. They repackage news feeds in an elegant, magazine-like layout. Google Currents is the latest such app and is probably not as widely used as the others, but it may be the most versatile and promising for online publishers.

Currents provides a powerful mobile content aggregation, layout management and publishing environment called Producer. Unlike the more limited, single feed oriented content access features of other newsreaders, Producer lets you group different RSS and social feeds into a unified magazine-like mobile experience. Anybody with a Google account can freely use Producer to create publications (editions in Currents lingo), not just selected media partners. Readers can subscribe to free editions and read them with the Currents app available for Android and iOS, for both tablets and smartphones.

With the help of other ISAA members I put together Associazione ISAA, a Currents edition aggregating most of our online content. Each magazine section collects and displays content from a single RSS blog feed, social feed, YouTube video channel, Flickr photo set or other sources. Like magazines, readers can browse sections and articles or access a table of contents.

A section of Associazione ISAA on Google Currents for Android on a Nexus S phone in landscape mode

A section of Associazione ISAA on Google Currents for Android on a Nexus S phone in landscape mode

If you manage different online space resources, creating and customizing a basic Currents edition is as simple as filling some forms or uploading images and media. Once an edition is in place, it updates automatically by pulling new content from feeds and other sources.

I encourage you to check our Associazione ISAA mobile magazine and see what is possible. It is in Italian but you can read it anyway thanks to another handy Currents feature, machine translation. To translate article text in you own language, tap the globe icon in the bottom toolbar of the Currents app. Translation quality ranges from barely acceptable to fairly accurate. This feature may open your content and activities to a wider audience, the international audience of space enthusiasts.

Have you created any space-related Currents editions?

ESA Shenanigans: the astronaut class with the most Twitter users

The ESA astronaut class of 2009. Photo: ESA.

The ESA astronaut class of 2009. Photo: ESA.

In May 2009 ESA, the European Space Agency, announced a new class of six astronauts, who later named their group the Shenanigans. They are Samantha Cristoforetti, Alexander Gerst, Andreas Mogensen, Luca Parmitano, Timothy Peake, and Thomas Pesquet. Although two of them, Luca Parmitano and Alexander Gerst, are scheduled to fly to the International Space Station in 2013 and 2014 respectively, none of them has flown into space yet. But they already made history, at least the history of social media.

The Shenanigans are the astronaut class with the most Twitter users. No ESA, NASA or other space agency astronaut group has ever had so many Twitter users. Five out of the six astronauts of the ESA class of 2009 have Twitter accounts, and engage the public telling about their training and experiences. In a few years, they will tell their adventures in space. The first to start tweeting was Luca Parmitano, soon followed by Samantha Cristoforetti. Then came three more of their colleagues. You can find them on Twitter here:

The only Shenanigans astronaut still resisting Twitter is Timothy Peake. But he will be assimilated,

Happy 2010 birfday Jenny – LOLspace

This LOLspace celebrates today’s birthday of Space Tweep Society founder and soul @flyingjenny. I guess she’ll comment her birthday cake saying “light this candle!”.

flyingjenny dreaming n tweeting bout spaceflight

New to LOLspace? See: LOLspace, the space LOLcats.

The first StratoSpera flight, from launch to Meco


At the eve of the maiden STSp-1 flight of the Italian StratoSpera amateur stratospheric ballon project, we wondered how central Italy would look like from above. The mission was a success, and we can now show what it actually looks like.


We launched the balloon from the area of Chianti, in eastern Tuscany, at about 09:20 UTC on September 4, 2010. After reaching a maximum altitude of 27.6 km, the payload safely descended attached to a parcahute, landing a few minutes before 11:00 UTC about 2 km East of Foiano della Chiana near Arezzo. It was successfully recovered.

The payload included a crew of 2 “mementonauts”: a  Space Tweep Society patch featuring Meco the birdonaut, and Joe, a small toy astronaut eagerly provided by a team member’s kid son. Wondering why the toy is named Joe? Joe Kittinger did Project Excelsior‘s final stratospheric parachute jump 50 years and a few days ago, on August 16, 1960.

As far as we know, this is currently the highest flight of Meco, who is also training for an upcoming, real trip to space and the International Space Station.

The STSp-1 onboard camera took lots of beautiful photos and videos, which we are still reviewing. We will post more to the project blog, @StratoSpera and the StratoSpera page on Facebook.

What’s next? The next mission, STSp-2, will likely fly also a Geiger counter, already built and tested, and a biological experiment.

StratoSpera: an Italian amateur stratospheric balloon project

Tuscany, in central Italy, has a rich terrain with plains, mountains, hills, sea and lakes in view. How does it look like from above? We may find out very soon, and the area might look like this.

Simulated view from the STSp-1 balloon flight

I am a member of StratoSpera, an Italian project for sending amateur balloons to a height of about 30 km in the stratosphere to take pictures and measurements. The first launch attempt is scheduled for September 4, 2010 around 8:00 UTC from the Chianti area between Firenze, Siena and Arezzo.

For updates follow @StratoSpera on Twitter. Besides the project blog we also have a page on Facebook.

We came up with almost totally random naming schemes for the launch site and mission number: KSC (Kianti Stratosphere Center), and STSp-1 for the first mission. The above image comes from an STSp-1 simulation of the view facing Tyrrhenian Sea from a 30 km height.

We are members of the online space enthusiast community ForumAstronautico.it with the help of Develer, a hardware-software design company. Launching balloons to the stratosphere is a cheap and relatively simple way of experiencing views and an environment with some of the characteristics of outer space. We were inspired by the Canadian SABLE-3 balloon experiment.

Most of the information available at our sites is in Italian, but images will hopefully speak for themselves. Indeed, the project name is an Italian pun based on the words stratosfera (stratosphere) and spera (you hope).


Teaser of Moonscape, a free Apollo 11 documentary

Swiss journalist Paolo Attivissimo is working on Moonscape, an upcoming free Apollo 11 documentary funded and produced by space enthusiasts, with a focus on accuracy and original material It will use the highest quality footage, audio and images, and feature synchronized views. Here is the first English teaser.

Paolo is a great Apollo expert and enthusiast. He also built an Apollo US flag replica that was saluted by a guy named Buzz.

A tweep to Mars: Diego Urbina tweets his Mars500 experience

Future Mars explorers will be grateful to the crew of Mars500, a pioneering simulation of a manned space mission to Mars began on June 3, 2010. Mars500 crew member Diego Urbina, of Italian-Colombian nationality, will tweet his experience as @diegou.

In this ambitious experiment, the longest ever attempted, a crew of 6 will spend 520 days confined in an isolation facility simulating a spaceship, with no contact with the outside world other than the radio communication and data links of a space mission to Mars. This experiment will help learn more about some of the most challenging and little known aspects of long duration trips to Mars, i.e. psychological and medical issues.

In an interview in Italian to space podcast AstronautiCAST a few days before Mars500 began, Diego also talked about his use of Twitter. He has been using Twitter for a long time. Now this microblogging service, besides being a project outreach tool, will let Diego keep in touch with the outside world and make him feel less isolated.

Let’s follow @diegou and interact with Diego in this pioneering experiment. For mission updates and information also follow @Mars_500.

Happy 1st birfday Space Tweep Society! – LOLspace

Happy 1st anniversary Space Tweep Society!

join spacetweeps, she sez - u'll get da bird, she sez

New to LOLspace? See: LOLspace, the space LOLcats.

Space is boring, but don’t throw the NASA openness baby with the water

At SpaceUp 2010, Andy Cochrane @avclubvids gave the short talk Space Is BORING (via Evadot), in which he vividly expressed the feelings of a significant part of the space community about NASA public outreach for its boring, unexciting style. The frequent static, silent images aired by NASA TV are hardly effective at engaging the public.

Andy contrasted NASA outreach with new private space enterprises, which may be better at talking in a touching and engaging way about real, ordinary people and finally show the public how cool and awesome space is.

Besides giving to private space companies new entrepreneurial and technological opportunities, the Obama plan for NASA may make them play a major direct or indirect role also in space outreach.

Will NewSpace be willing and able to match or exceed NASA’s openness in freely releasing all sorts of information, data, images, and videos, and in providing access to facilities and personnel? How will NewSpace address the “engage, inspire” space mantra? Can this be done with limited or no openness?

My name flew into space on board winning Ansari X PRIZE vehicle SpaceShipOne, and I am a fan of the new breed of young, bold private space enterprises. They, not NASA, might one day make my lifetime dream of flying into space reality. And I agree with most of Andy’s points. But the — understandable — secrecy of some prominent private space companies, and the limited information they release, may not be a good start on the openness issue.

Without enough openness, and NASA currently wins hands down, the future of space outreach might look like an emotionally engaging, but scarcely informative, weird mix of Soviet era secrecy and Gen Y exuberance: “XYZ Aerospace has just blasted into orbit the coolest spacecraft ever! Hey, there are people inside. They report they are feeling weeeell! That’s awesome!!!”.

Speaking of openness and engagement, what do you think?

Visit to ESA EAC, DLR and Technik Museum Speyer: technical trip debriefing

Imagine a dream trip to major space facilities, where you meet several astronauts. Add a visit to a geeky aerospace wonderland, and the opportunity to share the fun with your space enthusiast friends. I did such a trip.

From January 14 to 16, 2010, I did a short trip to Germany with Italian ForumAstronautico.it friends and space tweeps Giuseppe Albini (@GiuseppeAlbini), Luca Frigerio (@Spazionauta), Michael Sacchi (@signaleleven), Marco Zambianchi (@marcozambi) and Alberto Zampieron (@albyz85). We visited the ESA European Astronaut Centre (EAC) and a major DLR German aerospace agency facility in Cologne, and Technik Museum in Speyer. Space Tweep Society mascot Meco the Birdonaut was also part of the crew.

The trip was made possible by the kindness and assistance of our friend Samantha Cristoforetti, one of the new ESA ascans, whom we met with her colleagues.

Mission Day 1: ESA EAC and DLR

The first day we visited ESA EAC in Cologne. Samantha greeted us and joked that we were probably going to see more in the next few hours than she was able in past months. She and other ascans are so busy with basic training, that they spend most of the time there locked into classrooms.

Our excellent guide Stuart, a biomed support engineer, introduced EAC and showed us ATV (holy lift, it looks heavy) and ISS module mockups, and the Neutral Buoyancy Facility. We were able to venture inside the Node-2 Harmony and Columbus mockups. We also visited the ISS Medops control room while an EVA was under way.

Samantha later invited us for a coffee break with the ascans. They had an unexpected free moment due to a delayed lesson. After considerable deliberation, in which we mumbled something like “let us see, we are not that busy right now, this might fit in our schedule, sure, yeah, why not?”, we finally accepted. The whole decision process took approximately 0.012 seconds, possibly less.

After the coffee break Samantha and the ascans, um, well, “insisted” that we take group photos, which we did in front of the Node-2 and Columbus mockups another 0.012 seconds later. In the photos we wear sweatshirts with the patch of ISAA (Italian Space and Astronautics Association), our space outreach organization. I guess the ascans filed the experience under “survival training”.

Later that day another guide gave us a tour of the DLR facility. We saw such space treats as the Rosetta Philae lander control room, the ISS payload operations control room, and more. DLR has a scope similar to NASA’s in that it does both aviation and space, but it also deals with energy and transportation.

Mission Day 2: Technik Museum Speyer

The second day we drove over 250 km south to visit Technik Museum in Speyer. The museum is such a geek paradise, chock full of interesting and unique aerospace artifacts, that I don’t know where to start. There are many planes, helicopters and ships on display, most of which are walk-in exhibitions: you can freely enter the vehicles, explore them and take pictures. Kudos to the institution.

The most interesting space vehicle at Speyer is the OK-GLI Buran shuttle for atmospheric test flights, a sort of Soviet equivalent of the NASA Enteprise Shuttle. You can climb to the cargo bay and see the cockpit, or inspect Buran’s bowels by peeking inside the aft compartment through the floor hatch.

The large Buran building is packed with planes, cars, motorbikes, and all sorts of vechicles and machines. There are many more interesting space artifacts and flown items: the Soviet BOR-5 suborbital test vehicle (a Buran 1:8 scale model), Sokol and Orlan suits, Soyuz and Mir parts, you name it. So many things to see…

I almost forgot a minor item. In front of the Buran building there is a whole Lufthansa Boeing 747 arliner, which you can again freely enter and explore from the lower deck to the cockpit. What’s amazing about this sky giant is that it is not on the ground, but perched tens of meters above as if it was still flying. Mighty Jumbo.

Mission Day 3: sightseeing and wrapup

We spent the third and last day visiting downtown Cologne and the Cathedral, which stands taller than VAB. Before reentry we spent some wonderful time at an informal private gathering with ESA people. Thanks again to Samantha and all of them for the unique experience.

Just a few hours after we safely landed at Malpensa MXP airport, Samantha told that we had been lucky: all weather hell broke loose, and Cologne was in a snowstorm. Isn’t Buran the Russian for snowstorm?

Photos and videos

We took so many pictures, videos, panoramas and 3D anaglyphs that we are still downlinking and processing, er, posting them. The material is being collected in a few online places, which you may want to keep visiting to check the latest additions:

Santa’s eventful flight

I’ve just got news that last night Santa had an aviation accident involving an unknown vehicle. Details are sketchy and authorities are still investigating, but it looks like Santa is safe and his sled was damaged. The issue caused a delay in gift delivery. A short report with an image is available online.