International research team prepares for NASA balloon launch in Wanaka

Preparing for a super pressure balloon launch in Wanaka this week are Prof Steve Boggs of University of California, ...

Preparing for a super pressure balloon launch in Wanaka this week are Prof Steve Boggs of University of California, Berkeley, NASA balloon programme chief Debora Fairbrother and Prof Hsiang-Kuang Chang of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

It's fair to say when astrophysicists were children, most were fascinated by the night sky and dreamed of exploring the galaxy.

But not very many have manifest that dream in a windowless helicopter hangar in small town Wanaka, population 6,500.

Now, in Wanaka, 10 happy Compton Spectrometer and Image (COSI) researchers are doing just that.

Astronomy and physics scientists, from left, Che-Yen Chu, Taiwan, Jeng-Lun Chiu, US, Steve Boggs, US, Hsiang-Kuang ...

Astronomy and physics scientists, from left, Che-Yen Chu, Taiwan, Jeng-Lun Chiu, US, Steve Boggs, US, Hsiang-Kuang Chang, Taiwan, Brent Mochizuki, US, Carolyn Kierans, US, Steven McBride, US, Alex Lowell, US, Chien-Ying Yang, Taiwan, at Wanaka with NASA balloon programme chief Debora Fairbrother.

NASA coming back to Wanaka to launch balloon and probe the universe 
Nasa Kepler telescope captures light from an exploding star for the first time 
NASA spells alphabet using space photos 
Warkworth observatory spots supermassive black hole

These ones - perhaps a rare bunch indeed - also say they don't lie in bed at night worrying whether they've forgotten to connect any of the electrical cables that sprout from their machines. More on that later.

Come April 1, weather willing, the team from University of California, Berkeley (US) and National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan), will commit their $1.5 million ($US1 million) payload of electronics equipment and a very expensive telescope to the skies.

A Nasa Balloon similar to the one to be launched at Wanaka on April 1.

A Nasa Balloon similar to the one to be launched at Wanaka on April 1.

Most of the team have been here since February, and have worked pretty much non-stop, taking just a handful of days off.

Their science project will drift suspended under NASA's $1.94 million ($US1.3 million) super pressure balloon, 40km above the earth, and the researchers and NASA teams have high hopes it will stay in the stratosphere for a record 100 days.

The physics and astronomy research team is being led by Professor Steve Boggs, of the US, and Professor Hsiang-Kuang Chang of Taiwan.

The 2015 NASA balloon launch at Wanaka Airport. The main  balloon is at the bottom. The tow balloon is on the top.

The 2015 NASA balloon launch at Wanaka Airport. The main balloon is at the bottom. The tow balloon is on the top.

Anything like last year's trial Wanaka flight, which was aborted over Australia on its 33rd day after it sprung a leak, would be fantastic, they said, because a similar flight attempt in 2014 was aborted on its second day, also because of a leak. 

Ad Feedback

Their intention, or "mission of opportunity", is to look for exotic objects in space; things like black holes, neutron stars, and anti matter. 

These exotic space objects emit gamma rays, and the team has spent 10 years devising a special telescope, the Compton Spectrometer and Image (COSI), to detect them.

The slightly complicated explanation is the COSI is a "ULDB-borne soft gamma-ray telescope, designed to probe the origins of galactic positrons, uncover sites of nucleosynthesis in the galaxy, and perform pioneering studies of gamma-ray polarisation in a number of source classes".

The short story is the team is studying the evolution of the universe.

Boggs is excited because in Wanaka, with this telescope, the team has a pioneering opportunity to map the whole sky, learn more about anti matter and understand the laws of physics better.

"Our galaxy is like a sombrero and we are on the outside of it. In New Zealand, because of its latitudes, we get a good view that we don't get in the Northern Hemisphere," he explained at a presentation to about 100 invited guests at a NASA function in Wanaka last week.

Gamma rays are the "brightest explosions in the cosmos" and just like light, have different colours that allow scientists to study the "very deeply buried" processes around the formation of black holes or in the heart of a supernova, Boggs said.

The COSI is a different type of telescope in that it does not have mirrors, because you can't see gamma rays with mirrors. It uses complicated detectors instead.

In fact, the whole payload is a very complicated instrument and each of the students, ranging from Masters through to post-doctoral researchers, are working on their own payload projects.

Another three undergraduate students are involved in the research but are not in Wanaka.

The two universities have been collaborating on the COSI project for about 10 years, with each sub-team receiving funding from their own Government and university sources.

Boggs got into astronomy at high school and was the first in his family to attend college. 

"I had moved, with my family, from a city to the country and for the first time could look up and see all the stars. That was pretty incredible to me . . . It just started to all click together at high school . . . It has always been a fun hobby for me. I am fortunate to have it as a career and that NASA supports that," he said, in a later interview.

Chang gained his PhD in astrophysics at Bonn University, Germany. He became interested in space when he was "very, very small"  and he also did not have other scientists in his family.

Gazing at an optically clear night sky was best done in the mountains because many people now lived in Taiwan, creating a very bright sky, he said.

"About 10 years ago there was a chance that Taiwan's National Space Organisation wanted to push for international collaboration. At the same time, Steve was also looking for some more resources to push the project," Chang explained.

If all goes well, Chang and Boggs are looking forward to more visits to Wanaka, possibly in 2018.

The chunky payload weighs about 2,267kg, with the science part accounting for about 1000kg. 

The metal tower, or gondola, sports a couple of antenna, and the small but very expensive telescope nestled out of view right on the top.

The gondola also contains lots of electronic equipment, all connected by a carefully constructed birds nest of cables.

With millions of dollars invested in pioneering space research at stake, does anyone have nightmares that a cable might not be quite clicked in? 

​"I will neither confirm nor deny that has happened. We spend a lot of money checking this all out," Boggs said. 

"No," NASA balloon programme chief Debora Fairbrother said. "That's why we test. The payload has been operating for two weeks now. We've been taking it outside and connecting to Texas to make sure."

The team will also do a "hang test" on Wednesday to check all the equipment is compatible. Solar panels will also be connected to the gondola.

On launch day, the team will spend at least six hours from about 2am, making sure the whole thing - payload and balloon - is connected end to end so it can lift off soon after dawn on Friday, weather permitting.

NASA's balloon launch is the fourth test flight for this particular 516,499m2 balloon.

Lessons learned in the 2014 and 2015 launches have been applied and Fairbrother is optimistic about achieving the desired results for NASA and the scientists.

The total operational cost of the launch would be between $2.99 million ($US2million) and $4.48 million ($US3million), Fairbrother said.


 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers

Victory parade - but which day?

Emirates Team New Zealand helmed by Peter Burling celebrate after winning the America's Cup.

Exact day for homecoming parade for Team NZ is still being worked out, but Thursday next week looks a good bet.

Police hunting escaped prisoner

Police are hunting for Lusitino Selesele an inmate who was granted leave to attend a funeral, and his partner, Jacinta Sale.

Police are hunting a prisoner who escaped while attending a funeral.

Boy refuses to get in car

The boy was walking home from Vauxhall School, in Narrow Neck on Auckland's North Shore.

A boy refuses to get into the car of stranger claiming to be sent by the his father.

Ex-Breaker 'pulled beard'

Corey Webster is on trial at the North Shore District Court.

Former Breakers star Corey Webster is facing charges over a fracas in an Auckland bar.


A Wellington thriller video

Wing Tommy Seymour dives over for the first of the British and Irish Lions' tries against the Hurricanes.

Draws rarely come more exciting than this one between the Hurricanes and Lions.

Police probe death

James Whenauroa died in hospital after suffering critical head injuries.

James Whenauroa was found with critical head injuries at notorious Wellington apartment block. A week later, he died in hospital.

Coles takes the field at last

Hurricane Dane Coles and Lions skipper Sam Warburton hongi after the treasured korowai is presented at Wellington Stadium.

But it was just a ceremonial role, as he presented Lions captain with a korowai.

Capital wants cup victory parade

From left, Team NZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge, chief executive Grant Dalton, helmsman Peter Burling, team ...

And it also wants to be part of the action in the next America's Cup.


Fight with ex-wife continues

Earl Hagaman died on May 25 at the age of 92.

Earl Hagaman's will instructs trustees to fight any claim by his ex-wife "to the fullest extent".

Secret tyre mountain

A tyre mountain on a suburban Christchurch property is being slowly dismantled after complaints and environmental concerns.

In a green pocket of Christchurch hides a tyre pile so vast it can be seen via satellite.

Boy's battle after fatal crash

Leeston crash victims Sam Drost, Lily Moore and Cole Christensen-Hull, all aged 15.

He thought his son was in bed. Instead he was in hospital with a 50 per cent chance of survival and three of his friends were dead.

Fill trolley, walk out

A woman put a lawn mower, curtains and curtain rails in a trolley and walked out the door without paying for them. (File ...

A shoplifter's brazen approach almost worked, until she tried it again.


Dairy axe attack fight back video

Hamilton police are asking for help to identify two offenders who entered a superette armed with tomahawks.

Footage shows owners attack and scare off masked intruders with bottle of soy sauce.

Human chain protest

Mick Elley, a pianist from Te Aroha came down to support the cause.

Protesters say Waikato Uni's Conservatorium of Music is a 'national jewel' damaged by imminent staff cuts.

Baby died while mum bought pizza

The case is being heard in the High Court at Tauranga.

The 14-week-old had head injuries when his mum came back from buying dinner.

Toss the carpark vistas Hamilton

Ludo Campbell-Reid says NZ cities are designed for rush hour traffic, not people.

Forget the ugly carparks and Maccas, focus on the river and mountains, designer tells city.


Surprises pulled from the water

Robert Hinton was on his morning walk as lake levels dropped in Pukekura Park.

If Pukekura Park does have a Lady of the Lake, she won't be happy...

Assault defence opens

A trial involving three men is likely  to extend into next week at the New Plymouth District Court (FILE PHOTO).

 Violence accused claims complainant was "sweet as" with deal to hand over property to settle drug debt.

When your computer talks back

Gene Gibson has recently qualified as the country's expert on NVDA, a voice programme for blind people to use computers.

Talking computers aren't just a thing of sci-fi for Gene Gibson.

An early brush with yachting royalty

A 16-year-old Peter Burling off the water at Port Taranaki in 2007.

OPINION: An interview with a young Peter Burling, on the cusp of yachting greatness.


Manawatu muscle behind cup win

Olympic medalist cyclist Simon van Velthooven was to the fore as Team New Zealand chose pedal power instead of ...

Simon van Velthooven is exhausted and excited after the long, successful America's Cup campaign.

Gorge costs mount

Workers clear one of the slips that have kept the Manawatu Gorge closed since late April.

More slips plague the Manawatu Gorge hillside, as cleanup costs surge towards $1 million.

Son claims share of dad's fortune

Paul Van Moeseke made a will about six weeks before he died (File photo)

An eminent economist had wanted to leave his millions to animal rights groups.

Self-defence claims

Joseph Kurene.

Man suffered fractured skull and was in hospital for a month.


King Salmon predicts $20m profit

JOHN ANTHONY/FAIRFAX NZ New Zealand King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne celebrates following the company's debut ...

Less than a year after listing on the stock exchange, NZ King Salmon is raking in the profits.

Blazing a trail

Munro Hotel Group general manager Garry Munro outside Trailways in Trafalgar St.

Trailways Hotel has been recognised as one of the best sustainable tourism businesses in New Zealand.

Fistfight sparks gun threat 'bravado'

Victor Baskiville-Braithwaite pulled an air rifle on a group of people at Anzac Park after getting in a fight.

A man who pulled out an air rifle after being punched in the face has appeared in court.

Sold on property

Nelson Auctioneer John Walker.

Vanessa Phillips meets some top of the south businessmen with a passion for property.


'We are the champions'

"The pride of Picton", Joseph Sullivan, heads to the boat at this year's America's Cup.

Joseph Sullivan's parents have Queen karaoke classic ready for when he calls.

Time to repay kindness

Always on hand to help others, from left, Dontae, Gina and Maddie Anderson are well known in Blenheim for their charity ...

Gina Anderson is first to help those in need but her family is facing a serious set back of their own.

No stops for sick cow

Farmer Alan McConachie was stopped by police on State Highway 63 in Wairau Valley, Marlborough. (File photo)

A farmer who drove more than seven hours without a break says one of his cows looked sick.

Fill trolley, walk out

A woman put a lawn mower, curtains and curtain rails in a trolley and walked out the door without paying for them. (File ...

Shoplifter's brazen approach almost worked, until she tried it again.

South Canterbury

Tears, relief on Grasmere St video

Grasmere St resident Don Boot gives one of the remaining condemned pin oaks a final hug before it is cut down on Tuesday.

Some residents watched in horror as condemned pin oaks were cut down on Grasmere St.

Sugar policy difficult

A national policy on sugary drinks in council workplaces would be difficult to regulate and pose problems when ...

Councillors unimpressed by proposed national sweet drinks policy.

Gearing up for Jump Jam

Timaru South School Jump Jam Extravaganza team The South Stars at Tuesday's dress rehearsal.
Back row, from left, Zoe ...

More than 500 South Canterbury pupils are preparing to show off their moves on the big stage.

Police morale high

Senior Sergeant Dylan Murray, of Timaru, said police were often involved in community organisations and were genuinely ...

Despite reports of stress, Senior Sergeant says police culture in SC is "excellent".


Police re-open Barclay probe

Clutha Southland MP Todd Barclay - back under police investigation.

Police have reopened their investigation into allegations embattled National MP Todd Barclay illegally recorded his electorate staff. 

House's future divides

Some councillors have said they want the Anderson House to be returned to its old use, as a home for the Invercargill ...

"I don't think that we should play with money."

Two murder accused named

The cordon at Stadium Southland following the alleged incident on June 7.

Man, woman, both 18, named among seven charged with murder after alleged incident at Stadium Southland.

Singer crowd funding album

Arrowtown singer-songwriter Holly Arrowsmith is crowd funding her latest album.

TUI Award-winning queen of folk Holly Arrowsmith turns to crowdfunding for her second album due out later this year.

Ad Feedback