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UK stratospheric HAPS project enters next phase

SNC's HAB will participate in the second phase of the UK's Project Aether. (Sierra Nevada Corporation)

The UK has selected two companies – Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Airbus subsidiary AALTO – to compete in the second phase of Project Aether, Janes learnt.

Project Aether is a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) programme that seeks an unmanned stratospheric ultra-persistent communication and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability or high altitude platform station (HAPS).

The second phase will see SNC's high altitude balloon (HAB) and AALTO's Zephyr 8 fixed-wing higher than air (HTA) aircraft fly in 2024 for a minimum of 30 days in the North America and Atlantic area, a spokesperson from the Aether programme told Janes on 26 September.

According to the spokesperson, the aim of this phase is to shape the MoD's understanding of what is feasible, and will involve, among other tests, assessing whether HABs can station keep and whether the platforms can be directed to specific locations of interest.

Janes understands the platforms are expected to fly for thousands of miles.

A bespoke Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl)-designed ISR/communications payload will be equipped on the two platforms to evaluate its performance in the stratosphere. The payload was built by a UK-company on the Aether framework called Landguard Systems, the spokesperson detailed.

Phase one of Project Aether occurred in September 2022 over Page, Arizona. SNC's HAB was selected to participate and was required to remain at a certain altitude (60,000 ft) for 12 days with specific payloads and sensors. The spokesperson added that a metric payload, provided by UK-company Voltitude and based on their DropSonde technology, was used to measure and improve the weather predictions of the stratosphere. These trials took place in Shetland, Scotland in February 2022.

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