ESRL Global Systems Division

Successful Maiden Flight for the GAINS P-3 Balloon

Execution of a major milestone in the development of the Global Air-ocean In-Situ System (GAINS) brought the concept one step closer to fruition. GAINS is an Earth observing system of 400 regularly spaced platforms in the lower stratosphere that deliver environmental sondes to remote regions. Soundings of the atmosphere and ocean and in-situ collections of chemistry samples will benefit weather forecasters and researchers.

The 60-foot diameter GAINS Prototype III (PIII) balloon made its maiden flight on 21 June 2002. Many development objectives were met during this flight, such as launching the PIII balloon and floating it at altitude for more than 8 hours, transforming the balloon envelope into a deceleration device, achieving a safe descent rate, tracking the balloon from an aircraft, forecasting balloon trajectory before launch, updating balloon landing position during flight, and recovering the balloon and payload.

Manufactured by GSSL Inc., of Hillsboro, OR, and launched from their Small Balloon Facility at Tillamook, OR, the 500-pound balloon carried a 325-pound payload containing packages from four organizations. The FSL payload included GPS for locating the system, two independent radio- and software-controlled termination methods, and environmental sensors to monitor balloon performance. The payload also contained a GPS reflection experiment from NASA/Langley, redundant locating capability based on a design adapted from the Edge of Space Science of Denver, CO, and backup location and termination units from the Physical Science Laboratory of New Mexico State University and from GSSL.

Nominal float altitude of 54,000 feet was achieved after reaching a maximum altitude of 57,000 feet. A tracking aircraft kept the balloon within radio line of sight at all times during the 225- mile flight, and onboard personnel coordinated the flight with the FAA Air Traffic Control. Two additional vehicles tracked the balloon from the ground and recovered the payload. The balloon's descent was slowed by the GSSL Balloon Envelope Recovery System (BERS™), in which the balloon envelope transformed to a parachute and the system descended at about 500 feet per minute. The soft landing caused no damage to the payload capsule, and minimal damage to the wheat field south of The Dalles, OR, where it landed. The entire system was removed from the landing site and returned to Tillamook, OR, within 24 hours of landing.

Analyses of the flight data were presented at an FSL Technical Review in July, and further information will be presented at the COSPAR meeting in October. The complete history of GAINS and future plans are available on the GAINS Webpage. URL below.

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