Balloon team continues launch preps, conducts outreach presentations

Balloon prep work on the apex fitting.
Mark Cobble, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility’s lead crew chief, works on the balloon apex fitting integration as launch preparations continue for the upcoming super pressure balloon flight. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Preparations continued throughout the weekend for NASA’s upcoming super pressure balloon flight. Technicians worked on the top and bottom fittings of the balloon, installing electrical systems and the inflation ports that pass helium into the balloon.

The team’s next major milestone is the balloon payload hang test, essentially a full-up launch day rehearsal going through all the tests and checkouts leading up to, but not including, rolling out the balloon and inflation. The test is scheduled for Wednesday, March 23, but forecast wet weather may delay it a day or two. The team is on-schedule and on-track to declare flight readiness at the end of the month, potentially launching as early as April 1, depending on weather.

Balloon Program presentation
Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief, provides an overview on scientific ballooning during a March 18 presentation to the Royal Society’s Wanaka branch. (NASA/Jeremy Eggers)

The team has been honored to support a number of outreach events in the local community over the past several weeks. Most recently, Friday, March 18, Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief, provided an overview of the Agency’s balloon program to the Royal Society’s Wanaka branch. Some 150 members of the community were in attendance.

Monday, March 21, NASA’s balloon team along with the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) team presented to the Wanaka Grandview Club in Albert Town, New Zealand, with about 85 people in attendance. The Balloon Program presented first. After tea, Carolyn Kierans, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, provided the group an astrophysics 101 overview and then discussed the science she and the COSI team, led by principal investigator Dr. Steven Boggs, plan to accomplish flying on the super pressure balloon.

COSI science presentation
Carolyn Kierans, PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, and member of the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) science team, provides an astrophysics 101 presentation to members of the Wanaka Grandview Club March 21. (NASA/Jeremy Eggers)

Long-duration balloon flights (up to 100 days or more) are key to scientific investigations like COSI, allowing for extended data collection and observation of difficult to detect, infrequently-occurring phenomena. The team hopes to shatter the current super pressure balloon flight record of 54 days with this upcoming flight from New Zealand.

Super Balloon arrives in NZ ‘factory fresh’ after 15,445-mile journey

Just like a holiday gift, today was the day to open up the Super Pressure Balloon box. Yesterday, the balloon was placed on the trailer and the trailer was then parked inside the integration building. The box was inspected for any shipping damage – none was found. After reviewing the procedures and making sure all the safety checks were done, the magic moment had arrived to open the sealed box.

It was a long journey to get here in Wanaka, New Zealand. Production of this balloon started Oct. 14, 2015, and was finished three months later Jan. 28, 2016. The box was sealed tight and readied for shipping at the Aerostar production plant in Sulphur Springs, Texas. It was loaded by a forklift onto a trailer and driven to Palestine, Texas, (104 miles, 167 km) where it was put in a container to be shipped overseas with some of the other launch support equipment.

The Super Balloon was then driven to Dallas, Texas, (113 miles, 182 km) and put on a flight to Singapore (9,706 miles, 15,620 km). From there, it was flown from Singapore to Christchurch, New Zealand (5,220 miles, 8,401 km). Upon arrival, our world-traveling balloon was loaded on a truck and driven to Wanaka, New Zealand (302 miles, 486 km).

All together, that’s a total of 15,445 miles (24,856 km) of travel for the balloon before it is ready to flown on a NASA balloon flight. That is a long journey…and lots of time and chances for damage to happen!

NASA's Super Pressure Balloon is inspected
NASA balloon experts opened up the 2-ton shipping container for the 2.5-ton Super Pressure Balloon today, checking for damage before beginning preparations for payload integration. After traveling more than 15,000 miles from its assembly facility in Sulphur Springs, Texas, the balloon arrived in perfect shape. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Unscrewing the lid….breaking the seal around the top edge of the box….removing the lid….carefully opening up the inner plastic liner, cardboard protection, and the last layer of protective film. Everything was perfect! Factory fresh! The balloon had survived its long journey in top shape looking just like it did when the box was closed up at the factory. No shipping damage, and ready for the next steps to prepare for launch. A holiday gift at its best.

A 2-ton box for NASA’s 2.5-ton Super Balloon

NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility technicians began processing a super pressure balloon Thursday, March 17, in preparations for launch from Wanaka, New Zealand, on a long-duration flight. The team is working to be flight ready by April 1.

While the first step seemed simple enough—placing the shipping crate containing the balloon on a flatbed trailer—with the balloon weighing in at 5,241 pounds (2,377 kg) and the shipping crate itself coming in at just under two tons (3,935 pounds or 1,785 kg)—the exercise was anything but.

The container is lined with steel plates to protect the balloon inside, a lesson learned from past missions. The balloon itself represents a significant investment at $1.3 million, thus the added precautions during processing.

The initial lift used a smaller crane, but technicians soon discovered that lifting the load at the distance required from the vehicle was marginal.  With safety first in mind, an alternate approach was used. The larger crane on site, the same one that will be used for the balloon launch in April, was in use for various system checks of the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload. COSI is flying on this year’s test flight as a mission of opportunity; once in flight, COSI will 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.

After the COSI systems checks wrapped up, the team set to work on lifting and placing the box on the trailer, as seen in this time lapse video. Now that the lift is complete, the team can now open the crate to access the top and bottom fittings on the balloon to begin processing.

There and Back Again

View from a super pressure balloon
View of the Earth from a super pressure balloon floating at 110,000 feet (33 km). (NASA/file photo)
Wanaka Airport Sign
The welcome sign at the Wanaka Airport: “Home of the NASA Space Balloon Project.” (NASA/file photo)

NASA’s scientific balloon experts are back in Wanaka, New Zealand, prepping for the fourth flight of an 18.8 million-cubic-foot (532,000 cubic-meter) balloon, with the ambitious goal of achieving an ultra-long-duration flight of up to 100 days at mid-latitudes.

Launch of the pumpkin-shaped, football stadium-size balloon is scheduled for sometime after April 1, 2016, from Wanaka Airport, pending final checkouts and flight readiness of the balloon and supporting systems.

NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program first launched a super pressure balloon from Wanaka March 27, 2015, achieving 32 days of flight in what was the most rigorous test of the balloon to date. This year, the team has made some slight modifications to the fittings at the top and bottom of the balloon.

A super pressure balloon lifts off from Wanaka Airport.
NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon lifts-off from Wanaka Airport in 2015. NASA is back in Wanaka for a second launch of its super pressure balloon. (NASA/file photo)

With those changes in place, the team is hopeful they’ll achieve their 100-day flight goal, a goal previously identified by the science and technology communities as key for making SPB a competitive platform for a number of scientific investigations that would otherwise need to launch into orbit.

NASA will continue to update this blog throughout the 2016 SPB mission. In the meantime, check out this throwback to our 2015 mission!