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France boldly enters next frontier in space exploration: Timmins, Ont. Add to ...

France had a problem. The country’s space agency has been at the forefront of ballooning for a half-century, sending helium-filled balloons high into the atmosphere to study everything from ozone depletion over the North Pole to monsoons in West Africa and the accuracy of satellite solar cells.

But these mammoth balloons, which can stretch as tall as the Eiffel Tower and as wide as an NHL arena, require wide-open spaces to be launched, hard to find nowadays in France.

Enter Timmins, Ont.

The Northeastern Ontario mining city will become home to a new space-balloon launch site, a partnership between the Canadian Space Agency and France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). Canada’s space agency is committing $10-million to the cost of construction and flights in which it participates, while the French are providing their expertise and balloons, pledging to fly one in Timmins about every two years. Canada will also be involved in French missions in other countries.

The collaboration marks a return to ballooning for Canada after funding for these flights was scaled back about a decade ago.

Space balloons (near space, really) can carry up to 1.5 tonnes of equipment into the stratosphere, soaring higher than an aircraft but lower than satellites. They are relatively low cost and ideal for training the next generation of scientists and engineers, said Daniel Lévesque of the Canadian Space Agency.

“They need to get their hands dirty. They need to get their experience,” said Mr. Lévesque, one of the Timmins project managers. “Having a lot of flight opportunity will allow us to keep our scientists interested in this field. To keep our brains in Canada.”

Public money for science and space missions is tough to come by at the best of times, let alone during a lingering economic downturn. Ottawa is facing stiff criticism from scientists for reducing funding for environmental research, while budgetary pressures in the United States, long dominant in planetary exploration, have forced NASA to shelve high-profile plans, such as orbiting Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Canada’s modest space program has always counted on partnering with other countries, chiefly the U.S., noted Chris Gainor, a vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The country’s first satellite, Alouette, for instance, was launched 50 years ago on a U.S. rocket.

The Timmins mid-latitude balloon base, which will be constructed at the city’s airport, is the first space collaboration between Canada and France, whose space agency has participated in more than 3,500 balloon launches, working with countries such as Sweden, Japan, Russia and the U.S. It is expected to foster further scientific collaboration between the two countries.

France approached Canada about building a balloon launch site a few years ago. Although balloon missions don’t capture as much attention as rocket launches, they have contributed to our understanding of Earth’s environment and atmosphere and of outer space. Unlike rockets that zip through the stratosphere in minutes, helium balloons can hover for hours, days or even months, allowing telescopes, sensors and other scientific instruments to collect vital data for research.

Some of France’s most important ballooning work has focused on the depletion of the ozone layer and the role of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals, noted Marie-Anne Clair, director of ballooning activity for CNES. Balloons have also been used to test equipment destined for higher altitudes.

In Timmins, the French space agency plans to launch a mission called PILOT, expected in the fall of 2013. A balloon that expands to 800,000 square metres – the biggest balloon that CNES has – will carry a powerful telescope 42 kilometres into the sky. The scope will measure interstellar dust polarization with unprecedented accuracy, dust that could help scientists better understand the evolution and age of the universe.

Canada’s ballooning missions haven’t been determined yet. The Canadian Space Agency plans to invite scientists and engineers to its Quebec headquarters in the fall to pitch ideas, Mr. Lévesque said.

The agency’s last balloon mission was MANTRA in 2004 and involved scientists from Environment Canada, the University of Toronto, York University and the University of Waterloo. The balloon set off from a private airfield in Vanscoy, Sask., about 30 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon, soaring 40 kilometres into the sky to study the state of the ozone layer over Canada.

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