NASA completes balloon technology test flight, sets flight duration record

picamgondola-07021640
View of Peru’s coastline as seen from NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon July 2. NASA completed the 2016 super pressure balloon flight over Peru at 3:54 p.m. EDT Saturday, July 2. The balloon flew for a record mid-latitude flight of 46 days, 20 hours, and 19 minutes.

NASA’s Balloon Program Office successfully completed the second test flight of its Super Pressure Balloon (SPB) at 3:54 p.m. EDT, Saturday, July 2, setting a new flight duration record for a mid-latitude flight of a large scientific research balloon.

The mission, which began at 7:35 p.m. EDT, May 16 (11:35 a.m., May 17, in New Zealand time), launched from Wanaka, New Zealand, and ran a total of 46 days, 20 hours, and 19 minutes.

“We’re extremely pleased with the flight time we achieved with this mission, far and away the longest mid-latitude flight of a NASA heavy-lift balloon to date,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “We’ll continue to strive for even longer duration flight, 100 days or more, and what we learn from this year’s mission will help take us there.”

Having identified a safe landing area over the southern tip of Peru, balloon operators from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, sent flight termination commands at 3:14 p.m. EDT, July 2. The 18.8-million-cubic-foot (532,000-cubic-meter) balloon then separated from the payload rapidly deflating, and the payload floated safely to the ground touching down in a mountainous area about 20 miles north of Camana, Peru. NASA coordinated with officials in Peru prior to ending the balloon mission; recovery of the payload and balloon is in progress.

The decision to conclude the mission came after NASA’s balloon operators noted altitude variations during the last few weeks of the flight over the Pacific Ocean. The variance occurred at night and especially when flying over cold storms, with temperatures dropping as low as negative 80 degrees Celsius.

“Balloons are thermal vehicles, and some altitude variance isn’t uncommon during periods of extreme cooling and heating,” said Fairbrother. “Given the occasional periods of altitude variation we noted, and at times the magnitude we observed, we’re eager to retrieve the balloon and payload so we can analyze the flight data and balloon.”

Engineered to fly at 110,000 feet through the day/night cycle, at times the balloon dropped as low as 80,000 feet with the lowest drop nearing 70,000 feet when flying over a severe cold storm. However, at sunrise, the balloon always ascended back to 110,000 feet and repressurized.

One possible explanation for the greater degree of variance seen in this year’s flight, according to program officials, is that the balloon may have bled off some helium during one of the initial, harsher cold storms and then resealed itself. More data is needed, however, to determine the cause of the variance, underscoring the importance of recovering the balloon and payload for analysis.

“At its core, this was always a test flight,” said Fairbrother. “We’re looking forward to the this next phase of analysis. We’ll apply any lessons learned to future missions as we continue to eye our 100-day duration goal.”

A number of “firsts” were marked by this year’s SPB flight. It was the first time SPB carried a science payload, the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), during a mid-latitude flight. The science team from the University of California, Berkeley, detected their first gamma ray burst May 30. Gamma ray bursts are comprised of the most energetic form of light and can last anywhere from milliseconds to several minutes. The phenomenon is associated with many types of deep space astrophysical sources, such as supernovas and the formation of black holes. The COSI gamma ray telescope observed the burst for nearly 10 seconds.

Also, the balloon is the first to complete a mid-latitude circumnavigation, doing so in just 14 days, 13 hours, and 42 minutes. In addition, for NASA’s Balloon Program overall, it was the first time in nearly 25 years the team operated balloons in the northern and southern hemispheres concurrently, with SPB flying in the southern hemisphere and then with balloon flight operations in Palestine, Texas. The Texas flight, known as the Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT), launched June 30 and ran for just over 10 hours.

“This mission marked the most rigorous test yet of a super pressure balloon and brings the NASA and the Orbital ATK Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team even closer to setting a longer flight duration record in the future,” said John Pullen, vice president and general manager, Technical Services Division of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. “Our Orbital ATK CSBF team is proud to have reestablished the CSBF facility as a launch site by successfully conducting the second mission on June 30 that contained the Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope. All of these accomplishments point to future growth for NASA’s scientific balloon program, which continues to offer reliable and affordable options for exploring the universe.”

This was NASA’s second mid-latitude super pressure balloon flight in the southern hemisphere. The first, in 2015, flew for 32 days. The overall flight duration record for an SPB is 54 days of flight, set in 2009 with a 7-million-cubic-foot SPB. The overall flight duration record of any NASA heavy-lift scientific balloon is 55 days, set by the Super-TIGER flight over Antarctica in 2013.

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. Orbital ATK, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, 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 Balloon Program, visit: www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons.

NASA’s super pressure balloon at 40

The groundtrack of NASA's Super Pressure Balloon is pictured here. The green track represents the first mid-latitude circumnavigation and the red represents the current track. The balloon is flying over the Pacific Ocean nearing the west coast of South America.
The groundtrack of NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon is pictured here. The green track represents the first mid-latitude circumnavigation and the red represents the current track. The balloon is flying over the Pacific Ocean nearing the west coast of South America.

Forty days at float as of Saturday, June 25, and NASA’s super pressure balloon (SPB) is presently flying above the south Pacific as it continues on its long-duration technology test and science flight.

For the past two weeks, the balloon has etched out a whimsical groundtrack over the Pacific, slipping out of the more southerly stratospheric cyclone pattern and then floating nearly to the equator before turning west, south, and now east toward South America.

“The balloon has flown longer than its predecessor, flying through the rigors of the heating and cooling experienced in the day/night cycle,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “We continue to monitor the balloon, conducting daily analyses of the balloon’s health and trajectory.”

The balloon is designed to float at a constant pressure altitude of 7 millibars. However, the actual altitude at float is also dependent on the environmental conditions where colder weather below could lead to lower float altitudes. To date, the balloon has flown over a number of cold storms, which has resulted in the balloon losing its differential pressure and experiencing some altitude variance at night.

“The heating and cooling cycle puts a lot of stress on the balloon, but it was engineered to withstand the extra wear,” said Fairbrother. The previous record flying through the day/night cycle was 32 days, 5 hours, set in 2015 with an SPB flight that launched from Wanaka, New Zealand. The overall record for any SPB flight is 54 days, set by a 7-million-cubic-foot SPB flight over Antarctica in 2009.

Aside from the technology test of the balloon itself, the SPB is carrying the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) gamma ray telescope. The COSI team reports that the science instrument continues to collect good data.

Balloon flight operators at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, are monitoring the mission around-the-clock. Anyone can track the progress of the flight from this website: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm 

High-Flying Recording Studio Captures Deep Bass Infrasound

Carolina Infrasound Instrument
The Carolina Infrasound instrument is shown here prior to shipping to New Zealand for incorporation onto the super pressure balloon gondola. (Credit: Danny Bowman)

While the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) gazes into space, another experiment is listening for whispers from the Earth itself. Housed in two humble white boxes tucked behind COSI’s solar panel, a triad of microphones are recording infrasound – sound too deep for humans to hear. Infrasound sources include volcanoes, earthquakes, ocean waves, the aurora, explosions, rocket launches…and many more.

The power of infrasound lies in its ability to travel vast distances. Higher frequency sounds dissipate rapidly: this is why bass notes carry much further than treble notes, and why thunder from a nearby lightning strike is a sharp crack, as opposed to the muffled boom of a faraway storm. The exceptionally deep sounds in the infrasound range can travel around the world multiple times.

Networks of ground-based infrasound detectors are located around the world. The sensitivity of these microphones can be their own worst enemy, however. The slightest gust of wind can overwhelm faint acoustic waves from the other side of the planet. Also, the temperature structure of the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) tends to channel sound waves away from the Earth’s surface.

Infrasound sensors on balloons may offer significant advantages. Since they move at the same speed as the wind, they never feel its effects. Modeling suggests they can record sounds at much greater distances compared to those on the ground, and perhaps detect signals that never reach the surface at all. Despite this, no infrasound microphones have been deployed above 8 kilometers from the early 1960s to 2014, a gap of over half a century. Thus, the true diversity of atmospheric sounds remains unknown.

The infrasound payload on board the super pressure balloon was developed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The exceptionally light (<3 kg) instrument package has three primary objectives: 1) characterize the sound field of the stratosphere 2) record an “event” (earthquake, bolide, etc) and 3) quantify the impact of local acoustic or electromagnetic noise from COSI and the balloon itself.

If successful, this experiment will collect the most infrasound data ever recorded during a single flight; indeed it will increase the time coverage of available acoustic data in the stratosphere by an order of magnitude. The detection range and sensitivity of free flying acoustic stations will be well characterized, and the magnitude of humanity’s contribution to the global infrasound wave field will be quantified.

Unlike COSI, however, the data are not telemetered. The recorder must be recovered, or the microphones will take their secrets to the bottom of the sea. Thus, the UNC team watches nervously as the superpressure balloon drifts across the open ocean, and crosses their fingers that nothing goes wrong.

Listen to previous infrasound recordings here: https://soundcloud.com/nasa/sets/high-altitude-student-platform 

Danny Bowman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Super Pressure Balloon Circumnavigates Globe After 14 days of Flight

Super Pressure Balloon's first circumnavigation
After 14 days, 13 hours and 17 minutes of flight, NASA’s super pressure balloon completed its first circumnavigation.

NASA’s 18.8 million-cubic-foot super pressure balloon hit another milestone at 9:17 a.m. EDT Monday, May 31, crossing the 169.24 east longitude line, officially completing its first circumnavigation of the globe.

The balloon, flying the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload, achieved the milestone 14 days, 13 hours and 42 minutes after launching from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. At the moment the balloon crossed the meridian, it was flying at an altitude of 110,170 feet heading northeast at 53.85 knots.

“Long duration, heavy-lift scientific balloon flights are poised to open doors for science and technology payloads seeking low-cost access to the near-space environment,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “The team will continue to push SPB to its limits as it continues its global journey with the COSI payload.”

The COSI science team continues to collect and transmit data back to the payload’s control center at the University of California, Berkeley. On May 30, the COSI team had a significant breakthrough in detecting and localizing their first gamma ray burst, GRB 160530A (recorded in Gamma-ray Coordinates Network Circular 19473). Gamma ray bursts are comprised of the most energetic form of light and can last anywhere from milliseconds to several minutes. The phenomenon is associated with many types of deep space astrophysical sources, such as supernovas and the formation of black holes. The COSI gamma ray telescope observed the burst for nearly 10 seconds.

“GRB 160530A was a very bright burst and is an excellent candidate for us to utilize COSI’s unique capabilities to perform novel measurement of the polarization of this gamma ray burst. The COSI science instrument continues to function well,” said Steven Boggs, professor of physics at Berkeley and leader of the COSI collaboration. “We’ve met our minimum success criteria and the telescope is in an excellent position to continue the mission through completion. We hope to see many more gamma ray bursts while we continue our survey of the southern sky.”

The NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, operated by Orbital ATK, continues to monitor the balloon’s flight at the facility’s control center in Palestine, Texas. “Our tracking data shows the balloon is in good health and performing as expected thanks to the expertise of the super pressure balloon team and our experienced mission specialists at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility. The completion of the balloon’s first mid-latitude circumnavigation marks a key mission milestone and brings us one step closer in setting a new flight duration record,” said John Pullen, vice president and general manager, Technical Services Division of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group.

“We are also pleased that important science data, such as the discovery of a gamma ray burst, is already being collected on the mission which reinforces the capabilities of NASA’s scientific balloons in providing affordable, near-space access for conducting scientific investigations,” said Pullen.

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. Orbital ATK, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, 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.

Weather permitting, the balloon can be seen from the ground, especially at sunrise and sunset, as it continues on its globetrotting journey. People can track the real-time location of NASA’s super pressure balloon at this website: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm.

For more information on NASA’s Balloon Program, visit: www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons.

NASA Super Pressure Balloon Crosses Pacific Ocean After 11 Days of Flight

Super Pressure Balloon ground track
NASA’s super pressure balloon is projected to begin transiting South America at 10 p.m. EDT, Friday, May 27, as it continues to fly its around-the-world journey.

NASA’s super pressure balloon is quickly closing in on another milestone in its potentially record-breaking flight: first South American crossing.

Eleven days after lifting off from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, the balloon is on a trajectory to cross into South America at approximately 10 p.m. EDT, Friday, May 27, quickly transiting both Chile and Argentina.

“The balloon continues to perform brilliantly despite the stresses of the heating and cooling experienced while flying through the day-night cycle,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program chief. “It’s behaving as we predicted and is well on its way to set a new flight duration record.”

The balloon flight is monitored real-time from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas. Before any land overflight occurs, a thorough assessment is made of the balloon’s health, the performance of the command and control electronics and the forecast trajectory is analyzed from a safety perspective before beginning overflight operations.

The Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload flying on the super pressure balloon is healthy and continues to collect and transmit data on multiple observed galactic phenomena.

Forecast wind speeds and directions in the stratosphere show the super pressure balloon could complete its first mid-latitude circumnavigation as early as Tuesday, May 31. NASA predicts the balloon will complete a circumnavigation once every one to three weeks.

Weather permitting, the balloon can be seen from the ground, especially at sunrise and sunset, as it continues on its globetrotting journey. People can track the real-time location of NASA’s super pressure balloon at this website: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm.

For more information on the super pressure balloon mission, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-super-pressure-balloon-begins-globetrotting-journey.

For more information on NASA’s Balloon Program, visit: www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons.

Super Balloon Takes Flight From New Zealand

NASA’s super pressure balloon took flight from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, at 7:35 p.m. Monday, May 16 (in EDT), on a flight aiming for long-duration at mid-latitudes. Video and pictures from the launch operation follow.

Unpacking the balloon
NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon team unpacks the super pressure balloon from its shipping container in preparation for flight. The red material is a protective covering over the balloon and is removed before flight. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Connecting the parachute
NASA’s balloon technicians attach the super pressure balloon to the parachute during launch operations (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Inflation
Inflation of the 18.8 million-cubic-foot super pressure balloon commences. A tow balloon, which helps lift the super pressure balloon during inflation operations, is the balloon at top. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Inflation Operations
Alec Beange works inflation operations of the super pressure balloon. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
NASA's super pressure balloon is fully inflated and ready for lift-off. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
NASA’s super pressure balloon is fully inflated and ready for lift-off. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Lift-off
NASA’s super pressure balloon lifts-off from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, on its potentially record-breaking flight. (Credit: Jen Andrews)
Float
The fully-inflated, pumpkin-shaped super pressure balloon as seen from the ground. The balloon will maintain a near constant float altitude of 110,000 feet during its mission. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Up, Up, and Away! NASA Launches Globetrotting Super Balloon

Groundtrack
The ground track of NASA’s super pressure balloon is shown here just three hours into flight, lifting off from Wanaka, New Zealand, at 7:35 p.m. (EDT) Monday, May 16, flying eastward before cutting northwest.

WANAKA, New Zealand – NASA successfully launched a super pressure balloon (SPB) from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, at 11:35 a.m. Tuesday, May 17, (7:35 p.m. EDT Monday, May 16) on a potentially record-breaking, around-the-world test flight.

The purpose of the flight is to test and validate the SPB technology with the goal of long-duration flight (100+ days) at mid-latitudes. In addition, the gondola is carrying the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) gamma-ray telescope as a mission of opportunity.

“The team performed a brilliant launch operation today,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “The balloon is pressurized, healthy, and well on its way for this important test mission. I’m extremely proud of our Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team for yet another beautiful launch, and I’m thankful for the tremendous support from our Kiwi friends, particularly the phenomenal Wanaka Airport staff.”

Two hours and 8 minutes after lift-off, the 532,000-cubic-meter (18.8-million-cubic-foot) balloon reached its operational float altitude of 33.5 kilometers (110,000 feet) flying a trajectory taking it initially westward through southern Australia before entering into the eastward flowing winter stratospheric cyclone. NASA estimates the balloon will circumnavigate the globe about the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes once every one to three weeks, depending on wind speeds in the stratosphere.

“The successful launch demonstrates the value of an experienced scientific ballooning team and represents a partner NASA can count on,” said John Pullen, vice president and general manager, Technical Services Division of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. “The NASA/Orbital ATK’s CSBF Team executed flawlessly on the mission and reinforced Wallops Flight Facility’s position as the world leader in scientific ballooning operations.”

Super Pressure Balloon at launch
NASA’s super pressure balloon is seen here just before lift-off May 17 with the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload seen in the foreground. The balloon lifted off at 11:35 a.m. May 17 from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

This launch marks the beginning of the second SPB flight for COSI, which was developed by the University of California, Berkeley. COSI is a NASA-funded mission designed to probe the mysterious origins of galactic positrons, study the creation of new elements in the galaxy, and perform pioneering studies of gamma-ray bursts and black holes. Long-duration flights are vital to these types of studies.

Another mission of opportunity is the Carolina Infrasound instrument, a small, 3-kilogram payload with infrasound microphones designed to record acoustic wave field activity in the stratosphere. Developed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, previous balloon flights of the instrument have recorded low-frequency sounds in the stratosphere, some of which are believed to be new to science.

It was the fifth launch attempt for the team; previous attempts were scrubbed due to weather conditions not conducive for launch. NASA’s balloon experts at CSBF, and at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, will monitor and control balloon flight operations throughout the mission. In the meantime, NASA’s balloon team in Wanaka will begin closing down on-site campaign operations, which have been ongoing since February.

“We’re absolutely delighted to see NASA’s visit culminate in another successful launch,” said Ralph Fegan, Wanaka Airport operations manager. “The project has provided fantastic exposure for our region and New Zealand to date and this launch has helped us consolidate our relationship with NASA and its global balloon program. It’s been a pleasure to welcome the team back again and we’re very grateful to our airport users, neighbors and the wider community for their ongoing support.”

The science and engineering communities have previously identified long-duration balloon flights at constant altitudes as playing an important role in providing inexpensive access to the near-space environment for science and technology. The current record for a NASA super pressure balloon flight is 54 days

As the balloon travels around the Earth, it may be visible from the ground, particularly at sunrise and sunset, to those who live in the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes, such as Argentina and South Africa. Anyone may track the progress of the flight, which includes a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at:
http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm

NASA’s scientific balloons offer low-cost, near-space access for conducting scientific investigations in fields such as astrophysics, heliophysics and atmospheric research.

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. Orbital ATK, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, 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 the balloon program, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons

Super Pressure Balloon Launch Attempt Underway

NASA is targeting 7 p.m., Monday, May 16, (11 a.m., Tuesday, May 17, in New Zealand) to launch its super pressure balloon on a globetrotting, potentially 100-day test flight launching from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand.

This is the fifth launch attempt for the balloon team.

The launch can be tracked in the following ways:
· Track the progress of the flight at the following link, which includes a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm
· For mission status updates follow NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility social media accounts (#superballoon): www.facebook.com/NASAWFF and www.twitter.com/NASA_Wallops
· For launch updates follow on Wanaka Airport’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/WanakaAirport

El Niño weather continues to delay NASA’s super pressure balloon launch

NASA will not attempt a balloon launch tomorrow, Sunday, 15 May (all times in New Zealand time), due to unacceptable forecast launch weather conditions.

Officials will continue to evaluate the weather conditions for an optimal launch window. A status update for Monday, 16 May, will be given by 2 pm Sunday (15 May).

“The data continues to show a very unusual weather period for this area both on the surface and in the stratosphere,” said Robert Mullenax, meteorologist for NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon team.

Wanaka typically offers a very high probability for weather conditions conducive for launching NASA’s scientific balloons. Still, it is not uncommon for any of NASA’s worldwide launch sites to hit a patch of bad weather that results in postponed launch attempts. “The issue for this campaign…for this year…is more focused around the impacts of the El Niño weather pattern, which is also impacting weather globally,” said Mullenax. “The weather issues we are seeing this year are largely attributable to El Niño.”

NASA will continue to evaluate weather conditions at least through May 31 for conditions conducive for conducting launch operations.

Weather postpones fourth super pressure balloon launch attempt

Mother Nature continues to flex her muscles and throw us some jabs down in New Zealand; NASA’s scheduled super pressure balloon (SPB) launch attempt for today, May 6 (May 7 in New Zealand) has been postponed again due to poor weather.

“The high pressure system that was looking like it would help keep low-level winds down has dissipated creating unacceptable conditions for launch,” said Janet Letchworth, NASA’s mission manager for the SPB campaign. “Tomorrow’s weather is unacceptable for launch due to strong forecast winds. We’ll continue to evaluate conditions to see if Sunday’s (May 8) weather (Monday, May 9, in New Zealand) could support a launch attempt.”