Members of Nasa’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility team are “super excited” to return to Wanaka after a five-year hiatus, and determined to get to the bottom of a problem that dogged the agency’s last Wanaka flight in 2017.
The US space agency’s head of communications Jeremy Eggers said last week the small team of technicians and weather experts had wanted to keep a low profile while waiting for container loads of equipment from the United States to arrive at Wanaka Airport.
Now that the balloon gondola and its instruments and electronics had arrived safely, the team was moving ahead with plans to launch a super-pressure balloon in the first half of May, he said.
“We are super excited to be back. I only wish I was there, too. Given the state of the pandemic at the time of our travel preparations and such, we only have the mission team there in country, and support folks like me are back here in the States doing our best to help from afar,” Mr Eggers said.
The team is again being headed by Debbie Fairbrother, who was in charge of Nasa’s launch operations in Wanaka in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Nasa signed a 10-year agreement with the Queenstown Lakes District Council in 2017.
However, intentions to launch again in 2020 were disrupted by Covid and the balloon team members already in Wanaka headed back to the US before international borders closed.
Mr Eggers confirmed Nasa had this year signed another 10-year agreement with Queenstown Airport Corporation to continue using the Wanaka launchpad in the future.
More details of this year’s flight plans will be released in due course, but Nasa’s fourth Wanaka balloon mission will not have a university science payload piggy-backing along for the ride, unlike in 2016 and 2017.
The goal is to conduct an operational flight test of super pressure balloon technology.
In previous years, the team had wanted to achieve a stable, 100-day flight in challenging stratospheric conditions.
Wanaka’s previous three balloons flew for 32 days (2015), 46 days (2016) and 7 days (2017).
Mr Eggers said the balloon and gondola would be loaded with additional instruments, sensors, cameras and other equipment to collect as much data as possible to inform future science flights.
When fully inflated at an altitude of 33.5km, the 532,000cum, helium-filled balloon is about the size of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
Balloons are made from super-thin plastic, not unlike a sandwich bag, and cost about $1.6million each.
Nasa’s scientific balloon flight programme conducts between 10 and 15 flights each year from launch sites all around the world, including the Antarctic.
More than 1,700 scientific balloons have been launched in more than 35 years of operation.