3, 2, 1, liftoff!... from Ontario?

Timmins will serve as a mid-latitude "space balloon" launch site

It could be the biggest thing to put this Northern mining town on the map since Shania Twain:

Starting in 2013, Timmins, Ontario will become an international launch facility for stratospheric research balloons.  The balloon will be operated by the French space agency, the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), while the base will be under the responsibility of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

For almost 50 years, France has been a world leader in high-altitude unmanned ballooning.

In the last half-century, France and other nations (including Canada) have used millions of high-altitude balloons to forecast the weather, explore the realm between air and space, test "almost-ready-for-space" experiments, and even do bargain-basement astronomy beyond much of Earth's atmosphere.

A match made in the heavens

As Canada's atmospheric balloon program was scaled-back about a decade ago for budgetary reasons, France started to run out of real estate to launch its balloons due to Europe heavy population density.

Now, a collaboration between the CSA and the French space agency CNES will see a $4-million dollar launch facility built at the Timmins airport for CNES missions.

In return, Canadian universities and industry will get access to French stratospheric balloon flight opportunities here and around the world. The CSA is now accepting proposals for new Canadian balloon missions.

Preparation of a balloon.
(Credit: CNES/C. Bardou)

Anatomy of a stratospheric balloon

Modern-day balloons – typically made out of plastic filled with helium – can stretch into a gigantic upside-down "teardrop" shape more than half as tall as the CN Tower, or about the height of the Eiffel tower.

Hanging from gondolas at the bottom, these remotely controlled atmospheric balloons can carry science, astronomy, atmospheric chemistry, and weather forecasting payloads weighing up to 1.1 tonnes.

Such balloons require no engine and no fuel, are fully recoverable, and can reach altitudes of up to 42 km, holding their instrument packages aloft for up to 10 hours.  Long duration flights, lasting days, weeks and even months, are under considerations for the near future.

Atmospheric applications

"[This] is a coup for Canada's space community," says CSA President Steve MacLean, who notes that high-altitude balloon missions are the perfect training platform for the next generation of space scientists and engineers.

Flying higher and longer than aircraft and cheaper than rockets or satellites, high altitude balloons can help study everything from large-scale weather patterns that might turn ugly at any moment to long-term atmospheric concerns like ozone depletion over the North and South Pole.

The PILOT instrument. (Credit: IRAP)

One of the first launches at the new Timmins facility could possibly be the CNES PILOT mission, which will use a titanic balloon nearly a million cubic metres in volume to carry a powerful new telescope 42 km above the surface of the Earth.

Why Timmins?

Timmins' latitude, wind and weather conditions, as well as its low population density in key areas surrounding the city and "optimal on-site infrastructure" made it the top pick in Canada for meeting the demanding regulations governing high-altitude balloon launches and recovery.

For Timmins residents, the high-atmosphere balloon trade is one new industry that locals should be glad to see "up in the air" for some time to come.