ThunderStruck has been doing balloon flights with weather balloons up into the stratosphere now for about 10 years. And they’ve been both lucky enough and good enough to never lose a payload- a rare thing .
“The flight is about two to three hours before it’s back on the ground again, but it can qualify a lot of science. If you were developing a system for the multispectral analysis of Martian landscape and need to test it under real conditions, we can fly it up to atmospheric pressures below 1% of sea level, and temperatures to minus 50 Celsius in the jet stream. A flight that high also gets high levels of radiation, more than you probably get on Mars itself.”
Not only have they used these balloons to contribute knowledge and insights to the field of aerospace, they’ve deployed these scientific tools for education and advertising. For example, ThunderStruck helped Myob rebrand with some literal cloud computing, froze some Cloud9 yogurt with just the power of altitude, and dropped a Post-it note out of the sky to see if it would still stick. They’ve also worked with the Air Force, Science Week, and done a lot of education with kids to get people on board and thinking about a future beyond earth.
StratoDrones are, to put it simply, balloons that can live in an area known as the Tropopause, which exists between the stratosphere and the troposphere. It can do this because the tropopause is situated between 2 cancelling forces, meaning that the winds in the tropopause (and by extension, the drone living there) move little if at all in relation to the surface of the earth.
“The jet stream tends to have predominantly winds that go from west to east. And the stratosphere generally has winds that go from east to west, but occasionally they’re going in the same direction very quickly. [However], because we have propulsion on these balloons, we should be able to hold position very well, or even motor around against the winds. We hope one day to have our devices up there for a year or two, but initially we’re aiming for three weeks.”
The StratoDone’s primary benefit is that it can theoretically perform many of the same functions of existing satellites in orbit much faster from launch, and for a fraction of the material & operational cost. While the practical applications of these drones are obviously vast and revolutionary, Roberts examples focus on land care. With the StratoDrones, you can quickly deploy equipment to monitor and detect fires over large areas and even through the night, detect & monitor farm health and erosion on beaches, catch illegal fishing & dumping, etc.
“Of course, the big one – if we get longevity – is telecommunications, because having an antenna system up at 23 kilometres altitude, roughly, in geostationary position means we can provide comms over an area with a 400-kilometre radius per unit… if you have geostationary satellites 36,000 kilometers away, the delay getting signal back down is huge. Using a stratospheric airship means the power requirements for transmitting will also be significantly lower.”
Now onto the classics: Rockets. Currently, ThunderStrucks Lightning series of rockets are capable of reaching space for their customers. While their solid fuel rockets are nothing revolutionary and only currently functional as sounding rockets (meaning they do not enter orbit: They go up, then right back down.), where they’re innovating is the way rockets are launched.
The Australian Space Agency doesn’t require us to have a launch facility license and therefore we have reduced costs, and launching from the back of an aircraft means we can launch every day because there’s no delay in refurbishing the launch pad after every launch. You also don’t have to worry about rockets falling back down to the ground, destroying the launch facility. You’re out there over the ocean for launch, so worst case it’ll fall in the ocean and you have to go and recover it.
ThunderStruck has grander goals than the outer rim of Earth's reach; they’ve thrown their hat in the ring to help NASA search for evidence of life on Mars.
We’re looking to land a bunch of probes on Mars that will sense which way the wind’s going and whether there’s methane in the wind, then locate the methane vents. Because there will be a rover, if we did find a strong methane vent, we can send the rover over to get a good sniff of what’s coming out of the ground. And hopefully it’ll be able to tell the difference between methane that’s derived from chemical interactions and methane that has markers in it that have come from life. We might be able to say whether or not there was life from this methane, which would be a big thing to say: “Yep, there’s life on Mars.”
The journey these probes will go through sounds incredible. Putting aside the fact they’ll leave terrestrial earth on a journey to be one of the first things we land on another celestial body, once they get to Mars these 6kg probes will be dropped out of the sky to be dispersed over a number of kilometers and slam into frozen Martian soil at speeds of around 500km/h. From there, they will open up their solar panels and start measuring information about Mars and what’s beneath its surface to give not only the NASA rovers, but us as a species, a greater understanding about our distant celestial neighbour.
Check out ThunderStruck's awesome work over at https://thunderstruck.space
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