What better way to round off an (admittedly unintentional) ‘month of space’ than with news of New Zealand’s first scientific space balloon launch.

After a fortnight of delays in the wake of Cyclone Pam, NASA successfully launched a super-pressure balloon (SPB) from Wanaka Airport on March 27. Weighing in at almost 4000kg and made from the same material as plastic bags, the balloon is 90m in diameter, or approximately the size of a football stadium. The balloon is filled with enough helium to lift it to 33.5km at a speed of 300m per minute and then hopefully sustain its journey to South America.

The NASA super pressure balloon as it lifts off from Wanaka Airport. Image credit: Andy Woods

The NASA super pressure balloon as it lifted off from Wanaka Airport. Image credit: Andy Woods

The SPB has been under development for 15 years. This test will validate the technology, called a “game changer” by its principal investigator, Debbie Fairbrother.

This test flight is carrying camera and GPS equipment, with a goal of staying afloat for 100 days. The current record for a balloon of this type is 54 days. If successful in coming close to this goal, scientists will return to Wanaka next year for a full launch.

While this flight does not involve the usual payload of scientific equipment, a future launch would. These scientific balloons gather information on new planets, the birth of the universe, and the earth’s atmosphere.

The NASA website notes that the balloons are a “best kept secret” as they allow for relatively low cost testing of novel instruments before their addition to spacecraft. The special design of the balloon allows it to maintain its pressure despite environmental changes, thereby keeping at a constant float altitude.

For an excellent overview of the launch, see this fact sheet and photos from those at the airport.

By Emma Armitage, Business Analyst, BioPacific Partners

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