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High-altitude balloons over Oregon bring search for life on Mars one step closer

Brandon Swanson
The Near Space Corporation crew manages the upper portion of the high-altitude balloon at the Madras Airport.

Oregon-based aerospace outfit tests equipment for space agencies around the world on the coast and in Central Oregon.

It’s an icy fall morning at the Madras Airport. In the distance, Mount Jefferson is pink with dawn light.

A crew led by Vic Rogers from Near Space Corporation has been working all night preparing for inflation.

“We’re gonna clear the hose,” he shouts to his team over the rumble of the truck stacked with helium tanks. “I’m just gonna run a little gas just to get the dirt, bugs or whatever out of the line.”

With a low hiss, the line is cleared.

Off to one side, Near Space President Kevin Tucker braces himself with a large air hose on the tarmac.

“We’re about ready to start inflation. We’ll start running helium — it runs up the inflation tub and will start inflating the main bubble of the balloon,” he says.

The low hiss comes again, then a loud whine as the airflow increases. The translucent white top of the balloon billows and eventually pulls off the ground, anchored to a winch on a trailer.

This isn’t a kid’s balloon. It’s not even a hot air balloon. The balloon Tucker is helping to inflate is about 500 feet, close to 50 stories high. It will only be partially filled, because the gas inside will expand as it rises.

“Every 10,000 feet, that volume doubles. So the balloon that started looking kind of like a somewhat not very full bag, once it’s up at 100,000 ft, looks like a stretched-out balloon,” Tucker says.

This massive balloon will carry precious cargo from the European Space Agency, ESA, into the stratosphere to test the parachute of a new Mars rover.

Brandon Swanson
After working through the night, Near Space Corporation President Kevin Tucker (right) holds onto a diffuser at the junction of the air hose and inflation tube.

Unlikely Oregon

When you think of the aerospace industry and science, Oregon probably doesn’t pop to mind. Instead, you may think about Boeing in Washington, NASA in Florida or Texas, or maybe even SpaceX in California.

But Oregon has a long history of making space exploration possible — mostly by serving as the testing ground for new equipment and aircraft destined for the stars.

Tillamook-based Near Space Corporation has made its name with high-altitude balloons — testing equipment for space agencies around the world on the coast and in Central Oregon.

“One of the things that I think people find the most interesting, odd to believe, is that that’s a team that’s here in Tillamook, Oregon,” Tucker said.

ESA’s ExoMars mission is the focus of this round of tests. The mission’s goal is to answer the question: Has there ever been life on Mars?

“I remember I was a kid and I was watching the Viking mission and waiting to hear about the Martians, the yellow-green characters that never came,” said Thierry Blancquaert, ExoMars project team leader.

If there is life on Mars, it will likely be more microbe than Martian. ESA’s Mars rover will use a drill to look for evidence of life below ground.

“When looking at the evolution of the planets, looking at Mars will probably tell us quite some interesting things about the possible evolution, even of the Earth,” he said.

But before the rover can go to work, the module must first land safely on the planet’s surface.

It will do this using a series of breaking maneuvers that include one of the largest parachutes ever deployed.

That parachute will have to handle 12-14 tons of force when it’s deployed, and this force can cause serious problems.

“This parachute is made of a very thin nylon … and when you pull nylon from a Kevlar bag at very high velocities, then there is the risk of searing the fabric material of the parachute,” Blancquaert said.

This happened during previous tests, resulting in large tears in the parachute. It’s something the European testing crew will be looking for this time around.

Central Oregon is a near-perfect place for this kind of parachute testing because of its remoteness and relatively consistent weather, all good things when you’re trying to send a giant balloon and a test module more than 100 thousand feet up.

“That’s almost 25 miles straight up. So we’re really high. We’re outside of 99.9% of Earth’s atmosphere,” Tucker said.

Going high is key. Mars doesn’t have nearly the density of atmosphere as we have here on Earth. So to replicate the conditions a parachute will face on Mars, it will need to release where Earth’s atmosphere is thin.

“Balloons are…an elegant way to get to the altitudes we need,” he said.

Brandon Swanson
Months ahead of launch, each balloon is hand assembled and tested at Near Space Corporation's headquarters in Tillamook.

More than just a balloon

Before the high-altitude balloons ever make their debut over the high desert, they’re constructed and tested at Near Space Corporations’ headquarters in Tillamook.

The balloons are made of a strong, sheer plastic-y material, like cling wrap on steroids. Long panels of the material, called “gores” in the business, are fused together on narrow tables that stretch hundreds of feet long.

The seams are tested at the beginning and end of each manufacturing day for strength and durability by Amanda Knutson, the quality lead aerospace engineer at NSC and technician Stan Richmond.

“It’s a pass-fail criteria,” Knutson says. “We pull them to failure. They’re destructive tests.”

The “pull test” is just that. There’s a machine in the test lab — rather unimaginatively called a “constant rate of extension machine” — that grabs onto two gore sections that are fused in the middle.

Richmond loads the sample.

“Ok, let’s see what happens,” he says. “Cross your fingers — I always do!”

The two arms begin to pull and the gore material narrows like a rubber band as it stretches out. It stretches to 10 times the original length, then 20. After just a few seconds, the tension of anticipation is like filling an over-full balloon, knowing it’ll pop any moment.

But it takes a full minute for the sample to give way with a satisfying “SNAP.” And when it does, it’s not the seam that separates, it’s the gore itself.

“That’s a successful test,” Richmond says. “That’s what we hope for, that the seal is actually stronger than the material around it.”

Brandon Swanson
An inflation tube runs helium into the upper section of the balloon.

Go for launch

Out in Madras, launch time has arrived. The helium lines are disconnected and moved out of the way.

Vic Rogers runs around doing last-minute checks, clearing the runway of all but the most essential crew. Everything seems quiet and still. He signals the release.

The massive balloon rises, billowing audibly with surprising volume. It pulls the unfilled lower envelope and connection lines up with it. A slight breeze blows it down the runway over the top of a crane truck holding the payload suspended a few feet off the ground.

In perfect coordination, the balloon pulls all the slack out of the line and the crane releases the module. It doesn’t even touch the runway.

The sheer-white balloon picks up speed as it rises into the winter-blue sky.

The communications crew at the airport tracks the balloon’s flight, giving regular status updates over the radio.

“Current ascent rate is 1,080 feet per minute,” it crackles.

The balloon shrinks into the distance as the winds carry it southeast across the high desert.

Near Space Corporation
The partially inflated high-altitude balloon drifts skyward over a crane truck on the runway. When fully extended and vertical, the truck will release the ESA module without it hitting the ground.

Go get it

As the communications crew at the airport tracks the balloon’s flight, another team on the ground about two hours downwind picks up the trail.

“It’s coming this way. I got it here on a map. It’s east of Prineville, not too far from the Ochocos,” reports Jake Young, recovery team lead for NSC.

His job is to track down and recover the parachute and module in the desert and then eventually the deflated balloon.

“When we terminate the flight, the pieces will come apart and we’ll be able to track each piece as they separate,” Young says.

The team is holding on the side of a rural road, waiting for the balloon to reach the target height. They don’t want anything they send up to come down on private property. And if the balloon rises too fast or too slow, it could drastically change where the pieces land, meaning Young’s crew has to stay nimble.

“Fluid,” Young corrects. “I think that’s the next level up from nimble.”

The balloon finally comes into view, a white speck in the far distance.

“We have FAA approval,” Young’s radio barks. “One minute to release.”

“Sending payload fire now.”

Near Space Corporation
The European Space Agency's module drifts over Central Oregon, buoyed by a high-altitude balloon.

Rough road to recovery

The ESA module comes down five miles from the closest road, so the recovery crew loads into four ATVs and hits the rough open trail across the desert.

The dirt track is bumpy and sloppy, with ice in the ruts. The crew passes through cattle fences and near cows grazing on the open range.

A spotter plane overhead is directing Young to the parachute’s location. He stops the convoy to brief the rest of the team.

“This is the fun part!” yells over the engine noise. “I’ll lead because I got coms with the airplane. He’s walking us on … I’m hoping it’s between us and those trees.”

A stand of juniper covers a hill in the distance, raising fears of a difficult extraction from both the Near Space and European crewmembers.

Brandon Swanson
Recovery leader Jake Young directs his team to the touchdown location of the ESA parachute. It's 5 miles from the nearest paved road.

“What we’re hoping to find is a nice pristine parachute, and the test vehicle that’s intact and some good data,” says Joe Lynch, an engineer with ESA contractor Vorticity Systems.

The parachute ends up in an open sagebrush area.

“It’s good in a sense that you’ve got low scrub. It’s not in the trees. So that’s a plus,” Young says. “But in a perfect world, it would have been closer to a paved road.”

The European team wastes no time documenting the condition of the parachute, which is tangled in the groundcover. The module itself is intact.

“Nice to see it in one piece,” Lynch says as he snaps photos of the rig.

There are no obvious signs of damage on the parachute, but they won’t know for sure until they get back to Europe where every inch of the massive parachute will be examined.

“It’s the best part of two days. It’s a lot of fabric to inspect,” he says.

The results will have broad implications for ESA’s ExoMars mission, which was initially scheduled to launch in September 2022 in partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. But that launch date has been suspended because of EU sanctions against Russia issued after the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s withdrawal from international space operations.

On the ground, the recovery team carefully untangles and rolls up the parachute. They pack it into a sack and strap it to the top of the module. And they get a short break waiting for the helicopter to come in and airlift the precious cargo back to civilization.

The high-altitude test will soon be approaching the 24-hour mark, and there’s still more clean-up work ahead. But at the end of a long day, Kevin Tucker and his team know the parachute model that will be key to the next Mars mission, had to land in Oregon first.

“You’re gonna fly something that weighs a ton or so through the airspace and then bring it all back to Earth and go get it… that’s all done, everyone’s back, that becomes a really good night’s sleep after that.”

Brandon Swanson
The recovery crew for Near Space Corporation travel into the Central Oregon backcountry to the landing spot of the parachute.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.