Nasa may release its scientific balloon in Wānaka as early as next week and has confirmed it will be back next year.
The United States space agency is back in Wānaka for another flight test of its super pressure balloon, or SPB, technology to support science missions for longer flight durations, with flights running up to 100 days.
The Otago Daily Times reported last week Nasa was back in town and the space agency confirmed details about its visit yesterday.
The team is targeting early May for the balloon launch, the fourth test launch from Wānaka Airport since Nasa began balloon flight operations there in 2015.
Nasa last launched from Wānaka in 2017.
The team travelled to New Zealand in 2020 to begin preparations for an SPB flight but ultimately cancelled the campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Technicians open a specialised shipping container with Nasa's super pressure balloon (SPB) in Wānaka ahead of the 2022 launch campaign. Photo / Bill Rodman
We are on the cusp of perfecting our SPB balloon technology, which is poised to expand opportunities for all sorts of science and technology missions by providing relatively low-cost, near-space access for long-duration flight times at mid-latitudes," said Debbie Fairbrother, chief of Nasa's balloon programme office.
"For certain types of science, we can achieve the same results on a balloon that could only otherwise be achieved by flying into space on a rocket. Certifying the balloon as a long-duration flight vehicle is key to supporting bigger and more complex science missions in the future."
Nasa said it conducted SPB launches from New Zealand in collaboration with the Queenstown Airport Corporation, Queenstown Lake District Council, and Airways New Zealand.
After this year's flight, the team plans to return to Wānaka next year for two super pressure balloon flights, each with its own dedicated science mission of opportunity.
The SPB is an 532,000cu m pressurised flight vehicle designed to float at a constant density altitude despite the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle. This pressurisation, coupled with the stratospheric conditions in the Southern Hemisphere, enables long-duration flights.
The balloon is helium-filled and about the size of Forsyth Barr Stadium when fully inflated at its operational float altitude of 110,000 feet (33.5km). Wānaka is Nasa's dedicated launch site for mid-latitude, long-duration balloon missions.
Alongside the New Zealand campaign, Nasa's balloon programme is preparing for three balloon launches from Sweden, flying science missions using Nsas's workhorse zero-pressure balloons. Those missions will fly across the Atlantic Ocean to land in northern Canada.
Nasa has additional balloon flights planned later this year from the agency's launch site in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and from the Antarctic.