NASA grilled and thrilled by Wanaka super pressure balloon fans
NASA's third annual balloon launch is the biggest talk of the town, with more than 250 people queuing at the American agency's rented hangar door last Thursday to learn more.
The press of people astounded NASA staff and scientists from Chicago and Colorado, who answered questions for at least two hours.
NASA communications executive Jeremy Eggers thought people would come in dribs in drabs and was astounded everyone turned up at the same time.
It was not the first opportunity for people to learn about the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility's super pressure balloon: nearly every hand in the room went up when Eggers asked who had seen the balloon launch in 2005 or 2016.
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"That's amazing," he responded.
Eggers said Wanaka Airport was chosen by NASA after a world-wide search for a perfect launch location.
The airport was "brilliant" because it was characterised by low east winds that would safely carry the balloon away from population centres and was impacted by a winter stratospheric cyclone from Antarctica that could help NASA achieve its dream of a 180 day balloon flight and landing in Argentina.
"Why can't you do this from the northern hemisphere?" one person asked.
"There's a country called Russia. They don't like us to fly our balloon over their country. It really is that simple," Eggers said.
If everything went perfectly, the balloon should circumnavigate the earth for 180 days.
While the previous two balloon launches have not provided the perfect long duration flights, they had been "hugely successful" in helping develop technology, Eggers said.
The 2500kg balloon cost about $US1.5 million and could deliver the same quality of science more cost effectively than a satellite programme of between $60 million and $150 million, he said.
The 2017 Wanaka balloon payload is the University of Chicago's Extreme Universe Space Observatory.
If successful, the test experiment would allow scientists to make the first observations of cosmic rays from space.
Professor Angelo Olinto, of the University of Chicago, and Professor Lawrence Wiencke, of the Colorado School of Mines, are leading the programme.
Wiencke said the payload is "basically a high speed video camera".
Cosmic rays are in the ultra violet range and too faint for the eye to see. What causes them is the big unknown, Wiencke said.
"The energies we are interested in are one of the biggest mysteries of astroparticle physics," he said.
Wiencke likened the light spectrum to a piano keyboard of eight octaves.
"We can only see one octave. We are dealing with 80 pianos and we are up at the high notes of the 80th piano," he said.
"We are trying to put together this view of the universe at the very extreme end. What makes these particles is unknown. There are numerous theories and models. One popular one is it is a massive black hole in our galaxy. Or it could be something like a pulsar."
Hang tests have been completed. Daily weather assessments are being made.
The media will be notified no later than 2pm the day prior to a launch attempt, which will take place between 7am and 11am.
Live tracking: https://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm