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APE-GAIA
The
Stratospheric
Aircraft

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The M55 was designed by the Russian company Myasishchev Design Bureau (MDB) and was manufactured in the Smolensk factory on order from the Ministry of Defence of the former Soviet Union as a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Its maiden flight was on 16 August 1988.
The M55-Geophysica is an all-weather single-seater stratospheric aircraft capable of operating both day and night for about 5 hours up to an altitude of 21km, even in critical environmental conditions (e.g. temperatures down to -80°C, strong cross winds at takeoff/landing for such a high-altitude aircraft). These
characteristics together with the possibility of housing a scientific payload up to 1,500kg inside its bays (the main bay is over 5m long and can accommodate bulky instruments) make the M55-Geophysica an ideal platform for research in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.
Since the beginning of the co-operation between Italy and Russia in 1995, the M55-Geophysica has undergone several transformations in order to house the scientific payload and to increase its efficiency and flexibility as scientific laboratory. With this perspective, the bays of the aircraft have been modified according to a modular criterion, and have been equipped with standard interfaces with the instruments (attachment points, electrical connections, viewing windows, and servicing hatches). In addition, a number of dorsal bays, designed to lodge instruments such as MIPAS-STR, GASCOD-A and MAL, has been built onto the fuselage of the aircraft.
At present the M55-Geophysica is, together with the U.S. aircraft ER-2 (a modified version of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, managed by the NASA and used for scientific purposes) one of the two airborne platforms operating world wide for stratospheric research. While the ER-2 has a longer flight endurance than the M55-Geophysica, the latter has superior characteristics with respect to scientific payload capacity, power supply, manoeuvrability, and less dependence on ground meteorological conditions.

The operation of the scientific
payload is totally automatic: the
pilot need only carry out a few
simple operations, such as
switching on/off the instruments
and opening/closing the viewing
windows.
(Courtesy of Johan Ström)

Layout of the scientific payload on board
the M55-Geophysica. The bays of the
aircraft are not pressurised, except for
the pilot’s cabin and the back cabin,
which are pressurised at an altitude
equivalent to about 7,000 metres.