Nasa to test-fly at Wanaka
Wanaka Airport could soon become a base for Nasa if a test flight of a scientific balloon planned for March is successful.
Nasa Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility operations manager Dwayne Orr, of Texas, said three Nasa representatives arrived in Queenstown yesterday and met with Queenstown and Wanaka Airport management.
If the test launch of the balloon into the upper atmosphere from Wanaka was successful, more would be launched to allow scientific data to be gathered, Orr said.
The data would be used to investigate the origins of the universe, what was happening around the time of the big bang as well as the effects of cosmic rays on the atmosphere and finding planets, he said.
"We are really excited about the possibility of working here and, hopefully, a good long-term relationship," he said
Wanaka appealed because of its position in the southern hemisphere, its small population and the fact its weather conditions are considered ideal for launching balloons.
"Nasa likes to keep everyone safe and when you're putting 4000kg up into the atmosphere we try to do it away from populated areas," Orr said. "There are just a lot of good aspects in Wanaka."
Today the group will investigate hangar space at the airport, internet access, electrical and equipment support and well as suitable accommodation in the area for the launch.
About 20 people will work at the site during the launch and up to 40 are likely to be here for two months gathering and collating data.
"We have to use a lot of big equipment," Orr said.
"New Zealand people are very accommodating and are very excited to work with us. Everyone seems to be on the ball and responsive."
Similar test flights but with smaller balloons were held by Nasa from Dunedin airport in the early 1990s.
Wanaka Airport operations manager Ralph Fegan said the proposal had been in the pipeline for three years but "kept under the radar".
"The beauty about the whole experiment is that it has nothing to do with military or spying.
"It's 100 per cent scientific stuff. It's pretty big for Wanaka."
As the launch was funded by the US Government it could be pulled at any stage but Fegan said he hoped the relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister John Key would ensure it happened. The balloons usually fly for 100 days.
The Southland Times