A world record attempt is about to get underway in Northam, Western Australia. Fedor Konyukhov will depart from the Northam Airfield on a solo non-stop around the world trip in a balloon, attempting to better the record set by the late Steve Fossett in 2002. Last month WSH Project Manager Rhiannon met with Peter Johnson of Cameron Balloons to discuss the science behind a record balloon attempt. Peter built the burner system for the Morton balloon.
Fuel and Physics
Traditional hot air balloons rely on burning LPG to heat the air in the envelope; as the air heats it reduces in density compared to the surrounding air and creates positive buoyancy. However, it would be impossible to carry enough LPG to circumnavigate the world, so the Roziere balloon design relies on helium. Helium does not require heating to achieve a similar density (and lift) to hot air. During the night as the helium cools it becomes more dense, so it requires some top-up heating to maintain a constant temperature (and altitude). The burner on the balloon, built by Cameron Balloons, has a full range of controls from manual to auto-pilot, so Fedor will be able to dial up an altitude and get some precious sleep.
The balloon uses an array of on-board monitoring systems and a range of cameras, including a solar-powered one I’m told is identical to one sent to the ISS! Some cameras will capture ground images and others mounted on the boom will look into the capsule (the ultimate selfie?). There are also internal cameras to record aspects of the flight.
The craft is set up for VHS air-to-air communications as well as HF (in case a sea-ditch is required). GPS trackers will also monitor Fedor’s position at all times. Transponders on the balloon will also make it visible on radar to prevent collisions with other aircraft.
Health and Oxygen
The balloon capsule is not pressurised, so at high altitude Fedor will wear an oxygen mask. This also has an emergency back-up bottle that can last for a few hours. Fedor’s health will be monitored during the flight, including wearable technology that checks the oxygen in his bloodstream at altitude. To prevent him from freezing at temperatures down to 40 C below zero the capsule has a propane-fuelled heater, with an electric fan for airflow. Heat waste from the exhaust pipe is put to use as a hot-plate for warming food or drink. The capsule is made of carbon fibre composite, LPG bottles will be clustered around it then a solar array positioned on the outside. There are also on-board batteries so solar power is not critical to the flight.
The burners on the Morton balloon have undergone more chamber testing than the Fossett design. Fossett also encountered troubles with electric valves in the cold conditions and suffered a rare leakage on a burner hose, which took out one of his four burners. Fedor will have tools and spares on board to carry out repairs if needed. The burners for this balloon were assembled in Britain, with other experts involved in avionics and distribution panels.
Meteorology is also crucial to the flight, and the launch date was previously delayed due to unfavourable weather conditions thousands of kilometres from the launch site. High altitude monitoring for the trip has been undertaken from Belgium, by the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, with localised support for ground weather conditions. Based on weather projections Fedor will navigate using wind speed and wind direction, and he will make use of jet streams (fast flowing narrow air currents).
The Morton balloon Fedor will travel in stands 60 metres tall, weighs 10 tonnes at the start of the trip, and has a volume of 15,500 cubic metres. During the attempt, Fedor Konyukhov will fly over three continents and three oceans at an average speed of 320 kilometres per hour. His route will be roughly 33,000 kilometres long, leaving from Northam and travelling east to arrive back in Australia. He will fly between 5-11,000 metres above ground, with an ambient temperature down to 40oC below zero. He will attempt to complete his flight in less than 13 days, 8 hours, and 33 minutes, to better the record set by Steve Fossett.