HARNESSING HYDROGEN FOR NEAR-SPACE FLIGHT
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (January, 2024) – Aerostar safely launched, operated, and recovered the first Aerostar Thunderhead super pressure balloon system using hydrogen as lift gas on November 29, 2023. With over five hundred Thunderhead super pressure balloon flights, Aerostar has demonstrated a proven capability for precise global navigation and flight duration, but this was the first time hydrogen has been used as a lift gas in a Thunderhead system.
Modern stratospheric balloons typically float using helium, but hydrogen has financial and logistical advantages over helium. The cost of hydrogen gas is a fraction of helium, and shipping helium across the world can be time consuming and expensive. Unlike helium, when water is available, hydrogen can be generated through electrolysis, making it a renewable resource. This creates increased flexibility in places that may be difficult to reach due to lack of infrastructure, natural disasters, or political conflict.
In 2021, Aerostar partnered with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to develop and demonstrate the safe use of hydrogen as a lift gas. Over the last two years, methodical risk reduction, dozens of test inflations, and subscale flight tests led to this historic milestone.
High altitude balloons provide quickly deployed, long-lived communication links in civilian or defense applications, as well as observation platforms for scientific, environmental, or defense related sensing. “Aerostar continues to work to make Thunderhead one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly aircraft in the skies,” said Russ Van Der Werff, Aerostar Vice President of Stratospheric Solutions.
Use of hydrogen as a lift gas decreased significantly after WWII and was almost non-existent worldwide by the turn of the century. Reintroduction of hydrogen as a lift gas with modern risk thresholds is not trivial. Replacing helium with hydrogen as a lift gas for balloons requires unique proprietary features in the balloon itself, as well as remotely actuated launch systems, and specialized procedures to ensure safe and repeatable operations. The Aerostar ground crew leveraged this development effort, along with appropriate personal protective equipment, to execute this flight test. The inflation, launch, flight, and recovery of the Thunderhead balloon system went exactly as planned, marking a critical milestone for the reintroduction of hydrogen as a viable option for future high altitude balloon flights.
Aerostar gratefully acknowledges Ms. RuthAnne Darling, Director of the Operational Energy Innovation office of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the Operational Energy Capability Improvement Fund (OECIF), for supporting this program. OECIF support played a key role in the development of this approach which provides the DoD with a new capability based on renewable and operationally flexible hydrogen.
With more than 65 years of lighter-than-air innovation and expertise, Aerostar is dedicated to connecting, protecting, and saving lives. Headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Aerostar provides world-leading solutions in the aerospace and defense market, focused on stratospheric balloon systems and radar solutions. Learn more at www.aerostar.com
About Operational Energy Capability Improvement Fund
OECIF applies cutting edge science and technology to support the development and demonstration of innovative, cost-effective, and supportable energy solutions to meet joint service requirements, reduce carbon emissions, and maintain freedom of action in energy constrained environments. This office has a vested interest in innovations of all energy generation, conversion, storage, and transmission methods that benefit the warfighter and maintain a superior operational military capability.