NASA coming back to Wanaka to launch balloon and probe the universe

180315 News. Photo: NASA balloon program office chief Debbie Fairbrother explains the facility to science and innovation ...
JOHN EDENS/FAIRFAX NZ

180315 News. Photo: NASA balloon program office chief Debbie Fairbrother explains the facility to science and innovation minister Steven Joyce at Wanaka Airport in 2015.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration returns to Wanaka next month to launch its massive super pressure balloon and a galaxy-probing science project for the University of California, Berkeley.  

NASA successfully launched from Wanaka Airport for the first time last year and has now confirmed Wanaka as one of its global sites for launching unmanned scientific research balloons into near space. 

The university's payload will investigate longstanding mysteries of the universe, such as the births and deaths of stars, positrons, pulsars and black holes, and is a "mission of opportunity" following an unsuccessful flight in 2014 from Antarctica, according to a NASA website report.

Nasa Balloon launch at Wanaka Airport, 2015. The main balloon is at the bottom. The tow balloon is on the top.
MARJORIE COOK/FAIRFAX NZ

Nasa Balloon launch at Wanaka Airport, 2015. The main balloon is at the bottom. The tow balloon is on the top.

The balloon launch has other important objectives, including breaking the 54-day flight duration record set over the Antarctic in 2009 and hopefully staying airborne for up to 100 days.

READ MORE: 
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* Nasa balloon team to return to Wanaka next year for possible April 1 launch
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* NASA website
* Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility website

Last year, the stadium-sized helium filled giant had to be brought down over Australia after it sprung a leak on the 33rd day of its journey around the earth. 

The Wanaka launch follows years of tests and development by teams led by Dwayne Orr and Debbie Fairbrother of NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.

NASA's website says the super pressure technology "is on the cusp of expanding the envelope in high-altitude, heavy-lift ballooning".

The Wanaka flight will be the fourth for this particular, pumpkin-shaped 532,000 cubic metre (18.8 million cubic foot) balloon.

It is made from nearly 10 hectares (22 acres) of polyethylene film, similar to a sandwich bag, but stronger and more durable.

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Once launched, it will ascend to a nearly constant float altitude of 33.5km (110,000 feet), before moving eastward.

The 1,025 kg (2,260-pound) payload contains tracking, communications and scientific instruments.

NASA expects the balloon to circumnavigate the globe once every one to three weeks, depending on wind speeds in the stratosphere.

Fairbrother said the team was thrilled to be back. "This could be the flight for the record books."

To shatter the 2009 flight record while flying at mid-latitudes (where the balloon endures pressure changes due to the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle) the balloon must do what no other balloon has accomplished before, she said.

Longer-duration flights give scientists more opportunities to study scientific phenomena and sources, while mid-latitude flights are essential for night observations.

These two aspects, plus the relatively low-cost of balloon missions, means ballooning could become a competitive platform for scientific investigations that would otherwise need to launch into orbit, NASA reported.

​Physics professor Steven Boggs leads the University of California, Berkeley's Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) team.

COSI is a NASA-funded telescope designed to probe the mysterious origins of galactic positrons, study the creation of new elements in the galaxy, and perform pioneering studies of gamma-ray bursts and black holes. Long-duration flights are vital to these types of studies, NASA reported.

"SPBs enable completely new types of science investigations, such as we are attempting with COSI," Boggs said. "The long duration and night-time observation capabilities of SPBs are transformative. COSI is just the first science payload to take advantage of these new capabilities." 

The 2014 COSI mission was aborted because of a small leak early in the flight.

Subtle modifications have since been made to the balloon design.

MORE STUFF:

See it: First flight-ready date Friday April 1, weather permitting.

Talk: NASA Locals Day, Wanaka Airport, Thursday March 24.

Exhibition: Daily NASA presentations at Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow, Hangar 11, March 25-27 at 9am, 1am and 4pm.

Safety: NASA and Wanaka Airport will directly contact residents living within the 2.1km safety zone.

 - Stuff

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