After a three-year hiatus, NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program is returning to Wanaka, New Zealand, on a quest to perfect
its super pressure balloon, or SPB, technology to support science missions for longer flight durations, with flights
running up to 100 days.
The team is targeting mid-April for the balloon launch, the fourth launch from Wanaka Airport since NASA began balloon
flight operations there in 2015.
“This year’s mission is critical to validating and certifying the super pressure balloon as an operational flight
vehicle,” said Debbie Fairbrother, chief of NASA’s Balloon Program 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.”
The science and engineering communities have previously identified long-duration balloon flights as playing an important
role in providing inexpensive access to the near-space environment for science and technology.
Past SPB flights have led to new processes and procedures for constructing the upper and lower fittings of the balloon
to ensure the balloon stays pressurized despite the stresses from gas expansion/contraction that occur during the
heating and cooling of the day-night cycle. In addition, NASA has made improvements on the launch collar electronics.
The launch collar is the mechanism that holds the balloon film together during launch operations—the collar is released
just before launch.
“We are really looking forward to welcoming the NASA team back to Wanaka this year for their fourth super pressure
balloon launch,” said Colin Keel, chief executive of Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC), which manages Queenstown and
Wanaka airports. “In 2017 NASA and QAC entered into a 10-year arrangement to ensure the balloon launch program continued
at Wanaka Airport and provided the community with the many benefits it offers. It’s a privilege to host this innovative
program once again in our part of the world.”
While in Wanaka, NASA intends to conduct a number of outreach events and to engage the community on the importance of
the balloon mission and on other NASA initiatives, such as the agency’s work with the Artemis program, NASA’s program to
land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024.
“We’re excited for our return to Wanaka and look forward to conducting outreach, meeting with local leaders, and
ultimately sharing all of NASA’s work with the global community,” said Fairbrother.
Along with the primary mission of certifying the flight vehicle, the balloon will also host a returning science payload.
The Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) science team from the University of California-Berkeley is flying on this
year’s SPB as a mission of opportunity. COSI launched from Wanaka in 2016 and flew for 46 days conducting its science
Coming up in 2021, NASA is planning another SPB test flight from Wanaka, which, in turn, will pave the way for the
launch of the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission from Antarctica on an SPB
in December 2021. GUSTO is a US$40 million mission, the largest mission ever launched on a NASA balloon, that will
measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars. The data from GUSTO
will help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy, witness the formation and
destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our
The SPB is an 18.8-million-cubic-foot (532,000-cubic-meter) pressurized flight vehicle designed to float at a constant
density altitude despite the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle. This pressurization, coupled with the
stratospheric conditions in the southern hemisphere, enables long-duration flights. The current record for a NASA super
pressure balloon flight is 54 days.
The balloon is helium-filled and about the size of the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin when fully inflated at its
operational float altitude of 110,000 feet (33.5 kilometers). Wanaka is NASA’s dedicated launch site for mid-latitude,
long-duration balloon missions.
NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia manages the agency’s scientific balloon flight program with 10 to 15 flights
each year from launch sites worldwide. Northrop Grumman, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in
Texas, provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations for NASA’s scientific balloon program. The
CSBF team has launched more than 1,700 scientific balloons in the over 35 years of operation.
For more information on NASA's Scientific Balloon Program, visit: www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons