RMC launches FLOAT-3

A team from the Royal Military College of Canada launched FLOAT-3 last month, the third Flying Laboratory for Observation of ADS-B Transmissions. This was the first flight of a new, more effective receiver system, using a balloon and payload support system improved from the system flown twice in 2009. I’ve just had word from Ron Vincent, the RMC professor leading the project, and a former advisor on my master’s thesis work, that the launch, operations, and payload retrieval were a complete success, and that the receiver performed excellently.

The FLOAT-3 balloon system in flight
The FLOAT-3 Balloon system shortly after launch.

The FLOAT program began in 2009. I was one of two graduate students who together with Ron and three undergrads, put together the first-ever stratospheric balloon mission to track aircraft using the ADS-B navigation transponder system. The data gathered formed a core component of my master’s thesis, which showed, partly on the experimental demonstration of FLOAT-1 and -2, that air traffic monitoring over remote and oceanic airspace using orbital ADS-B reception was in principle possible. This year’s mission uses new receiver and payload designs, and the successful techniques and experience gained during those first two flights. The next goals for the program include deployment of a receiver aboard a nanosatellite in low Earth orbit — that spacecraft design is already well advanced.

The FLOAT-3 payload container at recovery
The FLOAT-3 payload container at its landing point southeast of Wingham, Ontario.

Congratulations to the whole FLOAT-3 team. I look forward to the next steps.

A local news article is available here, and an amateur-radio blogger from Kingston has the ground track of the balloon here.

Photos above provided by Ron Vincent of the Royal Military College of Canada.

Man, machine, and world

This is a fantastic image. Ed White on Gemini 4

It’s Ed White, Gemini 4 astronaut. He’s got a look of quiet contemplation fitting of pausing from your groundbreaking experimental space mission to look out on your home world, or the depths of outer space. I can read all kinds of emotions into that expression because I can identify so clearly with it. I don’t know what he was feeling at the time, but I know how it makes me feel. White is doing something substantial. Important. Trail-blazing. Difficult. Demanding, challenging, and risky. And it has afforded him a chance to consider his place in that effort, and in his world and the broader universe.
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Rediscovering old friends

There’s something charming about finding the stars you learned about as a child revealed, one by one, to host planetary systems. Even the best optical telescope images from my childhood showed a bright spot, shining in the cold, empty darkness of space. But now that I’m grown up, it seems that as I get back in touch with them, I find they’ve got children. Fomalhaut, for example. Or Epsilon Eridani. Even Vega seems to have a debris disk, at least. That universe I learned about, with vast, empty, cold spaces surrounding isolated, lonely stars seems to be revealing itself to be something very different. Where many (most?) stars have some kind of icy or rocky system of satellites, and the planetary systems that form in many of these cases come in surprising and baffling diversity. The universe is getting more crowded, more interesting, and less empty, and the age of exoplanet searches is an exciting time to be working in planetary science and exploration.