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Canada & France to Build Balloon Base

When you want to do something right, sometimes it’s good to go with who has the most experience. And when you consider science balloons, that would be the French.

Since 1783, French researchers have been at the forefront of ballooning. Beginning with Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier of Annonay, France, these two became the first to experiment with balloons — filling paper bags with hydrogen (the lighter-than-air gas) to see what would happen.

Since then, high-altitude balloons have been used in a wide variety of research, in studies of the Earth’s atmosphere and environment, as well as astronomy.  Balloons have been used for everything from studying Earth’s magnetic field and how it interacts with cosmic winds, to the Cold War-monitoring of radiation.

The Benefit of Balloons

The stratosphere is too low to operate satellites in orbit, and sounding rockets go too quickly through the atmosphere to collect meaningful data. Balloons, however, can stay aloft from between 12 to over 40 kilometers in altitude.

Now, the French space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), is second only to the United States in scientific research with high-altitude balloons, with more than 40 years of experience.

And so it was with some pride that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced recently that it is partnering with CNES to launch space science balloons. The CSA is investing an estimated $10 million over the next 10 years in flight campaigns and the development a launch base in Timmins, Ontario.

New Launch Pad

The new launch site was chosen for its location, the associated wind and weather conditions, the ability for the on-site infrastructure to meet national and international regulations regarding balloon launch and recover, and because it has fewer residents in key areas around the site, according to CSA.

The high-altitude balloons — which can be as tall as the Eiffel Tower (324 meters) and carry up to 1.5 tons of equipment — keep well above the flight paths of aircraft, require no engine or fuel, and are recovered after each use, making them cost-effective and  “an environmentally responsible tool for scientific research and technology development,” says the CSA.

“The balloon launch initiative is a coup for Canada’s space community,” said Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency, in an official statement about the new agreement.

What Does It Mean for Science?

Experiments can also be prepared more quickly and frequently, making them “ideal for the training of university students,” MacLean noted.

The project is also going to be good for Timmins, which will build, operate, and maintain the launch base. Timmins Mayor Tom Laughren said the project would help diversify the local economy, creating jobs and new career opportunities for area youth.

The first test launch is expected in 2013, and the CSA will solicit experiments from the Canadian space community the following year, officials said.

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via

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