Up, up and away - space scientists go stratospheric to test key equipment

Scientists who have designed an atmospheric monitoring instrument for use in future space missions are preparing to send it aboard a balloon flight to the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

Scientists who have designed an atmospheric monitoring instrument for use in future space missions are preparing to send it aboard a balloon flight to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

The instrument known as PACKMAN* will soar to 35km aboard two flights organised by the company B2Space, which will fly the instrument in its ‘near space test bench’ – essentially a miniature laboratory suspended from the balloon.

Developed with the European Space Agency at its Business Incubation Centre in Harwell, UK, the test bench provides excellent opportunities for researchers, SME’s and industry to validate their technologies in conditions similar to the ones they will face in orbit.

Having now obtained approval from the Civil Aviation Authority, the first flight will launch from Spaceport Snowdonia in Wales next week (depending on weather conditions), followed by another in July from Shetland Space Centre.

PACKMAN is built using commercial components and is designed to monitor radiation and atmospheric conditions in space. It was built by the University of Aberdeen’s Planetary Science Group, based at the University’s School of Geosciences.

The instrument has already been deployed in two stratospheric balloon flights, from Sweden and Spain, but flying from the UK will allow scientists to compare new measurements with those taken from previous flights.

Professor Javier Martín-Torres, who heads the Planetary Science Group, explained: “We have already flown PACKMAN successfully twice, so we know that it can operate in space.

“Our partnership with B2 Space means we can fly from the UK for the first time, allowing us to obtain a set of measurements at an intermediate latitude that we can analyse and compare with previous results.

“PACKMAN is really small and autonomous, so we want to convince the commercial space flight community that we can fly in a parasitic way without disturbing the overall mission. We also want to show that our various sensors can provide ancillary data to other instruments on board. 

“What we are aiming to achieve, through this flight and others, is proof of concept for the use of PACKMAN in space exploration and research - looking further ahead our ultimate ambition is to create a planetary monitoring network of PACKMANs for Earth, Moon and Mars.

“Our partnership with B2 Space takes us another step toward our ambitions for PACKMAN, and I’d like to thank them for their willingness in helping us to advance scientific understanding.”

Valentin Canales, from B2 Space, added: “It is a great opportunity for us to collaborate with the Planetary Science Group at the University of Aberdeen, as it shows how our near space test bench can help universities and industry advance its research and technologies.

“We are looking forward to further collaborations and teaming up as well with other universities and companies, offering them the possibility of flying their instruments from the UK at a fraction of the cost of similar services.

“Additionally, this helps us advance our own technology and takes a step closer to our biggest ambition, which is completing the development of our “rockoon”. This is a high-altitude launching system for small satellites, for which we are performing a proof of concept project , funded by the Welsh Government through the SmartCymru program, with a demonstration flight expected for the end of the year.”