NASA prepares to launch scientific balloon in Wanaka


Wanka SPB - NASA
NASA's Super Pressure Balloon prepares to lift off from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. Credits: NASA Wallops/Bill Rodman
NASA has retuned to New Zealand with it's Super Pressure Balloons (SPB) ahead of their expected launch next week. 

This will be the fourth test launch from Wanaka since NASA began balloon flights from the local Airport in 2015. The location is NASA’s dedicated launch site for mid-latitude, long-duration balloon missions.

NASA returned in 2020 to begin preparations for an SPB flight, however the Pandemic cancelled plans. The last flight from Wanaka was in 2017. 

There are already plans to return to Wanaka next year for two super pressure balloon flights with two dedicated science missions. 

The SPB launch from Wanaka Airport is in collaboration with the Queenstown Airport Corporation, Queenstown Lake District Council and Air New Zealand. The science and engineering communities have identified long-duration balloon flights as playing an important role in providing inexpensive access to the near-space environment for science and technology. 

What is a Super Pressure Balloon (SPB)?

Super Pressure Balloons are a 532,000 cubic metre pressurised helium-filled balloons. 

When fully inflated, SPBs fly at an operational float altitude of 33.5km. They are designed to float at a constant density altitude despite the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle. The stratospheric conditions in the southern hemisphere enables long-duration flights. 

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. NASA currently has plans for flights in the Northern Hemisphere, including three launches planned from Sweden using Nasa’s zero-pressure balloons. These flights will take off across the Atlantic Ocean and land in Northern Canada. 

Why is NASA testing Super Pressure Balloons? 

NASA is testing the Super Pressure Balloon technology around the world to support longer flight durations for science missions. The flights can run up to 100 days. 

Past flights have enabled new processes and procedures for constructing the upper and lower fittings of the balloon to ensure the balloon stays pressurised despite the stresses from gas expansion and contraction that occur during the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle. There have also been developments to the launch collar electronics, which hold the balloon in place at launch. 

“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.”





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