Low Pressure System Thwarts Super Pressure Launch Efforts

The Extreme Universe Space Observatory-Super Pressure Balloon payload is picked up and prepared for flight during a launch attempt April 10 from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. NASA conducted three super pressure balloon launch attempts April 8 - 10 (New Zealand time), but had to stand down each day for various reasons related to weather, forecast trajectories, and maintenance. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
The International Extreme Universe Space Observatory-Super Pressure Balloon payload is picked up and prepared for flight during a launch attempt April 10 from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. NASA conducted three super pressure balloon launch attempts April 8 – 10 (New Zealand time), but had to stand down each day for various reasons related to weather, forecast trajectories, and maintenance. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Multiple areas of low pressure with associated precipitation and unfavorable winds have settled in over New Zealand preventing NASA from attempting a super pressure balloon launch from Wanaka over the next several days.

“Conditions do not look favorable for the next four to five days given the winds, forecast rain, and uncertainties with Tropical Cyclone Cook to the northwest of us,” said Chris Schwantes, NASA’s on-site meteorologist for the 2017 Wanaka Super Pressure Balloon Campaign. “However, forecast models currently show high pressure building up in the area after the Easter weekend, which could lead to favorable conditions for launching.”

Since declaring flight readiness March 25, NASA has conducted three launch attempts for its super pressure balloon.

The first of the three back-to-back attempts began April 8 (New Zealand time zone), ending early due to uncertainty with the balloon trajectory given forecast stratospheric wind conditions at 33.5 km (110,000 feet), the balloon’s planned float altitude. The second attempt, April 9, also ended early due to mechanical issues with NASA’s launch vehicle crane—issues that have since been resolved.

The third attempt progressed into the early morning hours of April 10 ending when surface and low-level winds failed to set up as required for launch.

“A lot of things need to go right to support a launch attempt, but only one thing needs to go wrong,” said Justin Marsh, campaign manager for the 2017 Wanaka Super Pressure Balloon Campaign. “Our team remains flight ready to support a launch attempt once the weather improves. All things considered, it’s still relatively early in the campaign.”

Third Launch Attempt Scheduled for Super Pressure Balloon

UPDATE: (4:30 a.m. New Zealand Time). NASA Balloon Launch Attempt Postponed Due to Weather

NASA postponed the third launch attempt of its super pressure balloon (SPB) from Wanaka, New Zealand, at 4:30 a.m. Monday, April 10 (New Zealand time) due to poor weather at ground and surface levels.

Wind speeds were just slightly above those required for launch, and with the uncertainty for precipitation in the area, the team made the decision to postpone for the day.

No launch attempt is scheduled for Tuesday, April 11. NASA will announce by 2 p.m. Tuesday, whether or not Wednesday’s weather will support a launch attempt. (All times/dates New Zealand time zone.)
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NASA is targeting Monday, April 10 (Sunday, April 9 in Eastern Time), to conduct a super pressure balloon (SPB) test flight launching from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, on a potential 100-day journey.

NASA will begin flight preparations in the early morning hours Monday and will continue to evaluate real-time and forecast weather conditions throughout the morning. If weather is conducive for launch, lift-off is scheduled between 8 and 11:30 a.m. locally (between 4 and 7:30 p.m. EDT Sunday, April 9).

At this time, weather conditions are considered marginal for launch.

“There are periods of light rain forecast tomorrow, but we may have a launch opportunity early in our window,” said Gabe Garde, mission manager for the 2017 Wanaka Balloon Campaign. “In the stratosphere at 33.5 km (110,000 feet), the winds are forecast to take the balloon due east after launch, which is ideal for our operations.”

This is the third scheduled launch attempt for NASA’s 2017 Wanaka Balloon Campaign. The first attempt was canceled due to unacceptable stratospheric wind conditions; the second attempt was canceled due to a mechanical issue with a crane used for launch operations, which has since been resolved.

The launch can be tracked in the following ways:

• A live feed of the launch is available here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-csbf-downrange-operations
• 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

NASA Postpones Super Pressure Balloon Launch

Stratospheric Winds
This graphic shows stratospheric wind speed and direction at 33.5 km (110,000 feet), which is the operational altitude of NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon. The eddy pattern to the west of New Zealand led to an unacceptable trajectory forecast to make a launch attempt Saturday, April 8 (New Zealand time zone).

NASA postponed the scheduled launch of its super pressure balloon (SPB) from Wanaka, New Zealand, at 2 a.m. Saturday, April 8 (New Zealand time) due to unacceptable stratospheric weather conditions for operations.

Along with monitoring ground and lower-level winds (up to 300 meters) on launch day, stratospheric wind conditions at 33.5 km (110,000 feet), which is where the balloon will float, also need to be set-up favorably to support a launch attempt.

While ground and lower-level winds were conducive for launch, winds in the stratosphere were not. A counter-clockwise flowing eddy has developed to the west of New Zealand’s North Island. Forecast models had the balloon launching from Wanaka and then traveling north bisecting the South Island before eventually getting caught up in the light and variable winds of the eddy. Ideally, an eastward trajectory after lift-off is preferred, though not necessarily required.

“Had the forecast stratospheric models pushed the balloon further west—not unlike what we saw in our 2016 launch—we would have seriously considered moving forward with our launch attempt,” said Gabe Garde, NASA’s mission manager for the balloon launch. “Unfortunately, there’s too much uncertainty in the final trajectory forecast given the nearby eddy pattern in the stratosphere. More opportunities will present themselves as we continue to move forward in the campaign.”

NASA will announce by 2 p.m. Saturday, April 8, whether or not Sunday’s weather will support a launch attempt.

Launch Attempt Scheduled for Super Pressure Balloon

COSI Launch
The Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload just prior to launch from Wanaka, New Zealand, on a NASA super pressure balloon in May 2016. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

NASA is targeting Saturday, April 8 (Friday, April 7 in Eastern Time), to conduct a super pressure balloon (SPB) test flight launching from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, on a potential 100-day journey.

NASA will begin flight preparations in the early morning hours Saturday and will continue to evaluate real-time and forecast weather conditions throughout the morning. If weather is conducive for launch, lift-off is scheduled between 8 and 11:30 a.m. locally (between 4 and 7:30 p.m. EDT Friday, April 7).

“At this time, the weather at the ground and lower levels looks very good for a Saturday launch attempt,” said Gabe Garde, mission manager for the 2017 Wanaka Balloon Campaign. “However, we continue to evaluate the forecast stratospheric winds and predicted flight trajectory to ensure conditions are acceptable before launch.”

The launch can be tracked in the following ways:

• A live feed of the launch is available here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-csbf-downrange-operations
• 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: www.facebook.com/NASAWFF and www.twitter.com/NASA_Wallops

‘Seal Team 6’: Constructing a Super Pressure Balloon

SPB construction
Balloon fabricators at Raven Aerostar’s Sulphur Springs, Texas, manufacturing facility reposition balloon material during super pressure balloon construction.

As the latest super pressure balloon (SPB) prepares to lift off from New Zealand, carrying the Extreme Universe Space Observatory-SPB (EUSO-SPB) payload, one may reflect back on how this balloon, the 6th iteration in the current model of long duration balloons, came to be and what goes into its construction — acres and acres of plastic film, miles of load-bearing strength members, platforms for electronics, and suspension points for payloads, to name a few.

The raw materials and design are only part of it. A balloon of this size cannot simply ‘walk into Mordor,’ i.e. construction is a difficult task that involves hundreds of film segments. It requires a “seal team”—a primary team of six assemblers from Raven Aerostar, NASA’s balloon partner, to shape multiple segments of film into a vehicle that will function at a near constant 33 km altitude, well into the stratosphere, over long durations of day and night cycles.

Two Raven Aerostar assemblers are dedicated to operating the equipment necessary for heat-sealing each of the hundreds of segments together, integrally combing these segments with strength bearing components as they walk along, producing miles and miles of seals. A third assembler supports the first two, ensuring a first-class quality heat seal has been made.

Two more assemblers man the top and bottom of each balloon segment, dispensing materials and optimally positioning items prior to heat seal creation. The final member is responsible for sorting and arranging the massive heaps of balloon material that accumulates during the course of construction. Balloon creation is truly a team effort, with each of these six members performing numerous tasks, filling in the gaps in an intricate dance of sorts while each balloon segment is created.

The Raven Aerostar team
The Raven Aerostar Super Pressure Balloon Team.

Every great team has a supporting cast as well, and this is no different. Other Raven Aerostar members are responsible for fabricating and conditioning the balloon strength members, ensuring quality film goes into the balloon and providing direction on balloon design. All of this is done in conjunction with the broader NASA and Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team, ensuring that what is constructed at Raven Aerostar has the best chance of meeting performance and operational requirements for each test flight.

“As a design engineer who also operates in the field for launch and recovery operations, I have personally had the opportunity to follow the last few super pressure balloons from design phase through fabrication, flight, and termination,” said Raven Aerostar’s Daniel Scheiber, who’s on-site in Wanaka, New Zealand, for the 2017 SPB launch. “It is remarkable what these balloons are capable of, and the scientific missions these giant balloons can support in the future has great potential. Our super pressure balloons provide access to near-space environments for fractions of what it would otherwise cost, and serve as platforms for scientific payloads to mature prior to making the trip to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond.”

Contributed by Dan Scheiber, Raven Aerostar

Balloon Weather: When Conditions Align on the Ground, Lower-levels and in the Stratosphere

Chris Schwantes, meteorologist with NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, provides a daily weather briefing to the super pressure balloon team March 30 at Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Chris Schwantes, meteorologist with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, provides a daily weather briefing to the super pressure balloon team March 30 at Wanaka Airport, New Zealand. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Of all the flight and launch vehicles NASA operates, none is perhaps as persnickety when it comes to weather as a scientific balloon. And of the two main types of balloons NASA flies—zero pressure and super pressure balloons—the super pressure is the most persnickety of all.

For launch, winds need to be light and flowing in a reliable direction both at the surface and at low-levels up to 300 meters (winds flowing in opposite directions on the ground and lower levels could have a shearing effect on the balloon). In addition, the balloon needs to launch into a weather phenomenon known as the stratospheric winter cyclone, characterized by wind vectors traveling easterly about Antarctica with the cyclonic behavior extending into the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes.

For NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon campaign in Wanaka, New Zealand, the past two days—March 29 and 30—have been near perfect days to locals and visitors alike: low wind, abundant sun, warm weather (but not too warm).

Winter Stratospheric Cyclone
This graphic of the stratospheric winds at a pressure altitude of 7 millibars, roughly 33.5 km or 110,000 feet, valid as of March 29, shows the winter stratospheric cyclone about Antarctica set-up, but with a pocket of light, variable winds above the balloon program’s Wanaka, NZ, launch site.

However, some 33.5 kilometers high in the stratosphere, a small eddy developed above Wanaka characterized by very light, variable stratospheric winds.

Along with winds being just slightly too fast at the surface and thus not conducive for launch, launching into these types of stratospheric conditions would have led to the balloon slowly meandering above the region for an extended period of time driving up risk factors beyond NASA’s stringent safety standards. Ideally, stratospheric winds will propel the balloon well to the east so that the balloon pressurizes and reaches its float altitude either over a largely unpopulated land area or, better yet, over the water.

With rain forecast for most the weekend, the team continues to wait out Wanaka’s weather for a balloon-weather day.

In the meantime, members of the team are engaged in a number of outreach activities around the area. The Extreme Universe Space Observatory-Super Pressure Balloon team gave a presentation on their mission and related science topics to 12th graders from Wanaka’s Mount Aspiring College March 29 and 30. Additionally, members of the NASA and Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility teams attended the Wanaka Chamber of Commerce’s monthly meeting and reception March 29. Additional outreach activities are planned throughout the campaign.

Wanaka outreach
Peter von Ballmoos, scientist and collaborator on the Extreme Universe Space Observatory on a Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB) mission, discusses the electromagnetic spectrum to a group of 12th grade students at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand, March 29 (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Balloon-Borne Science Instrument Uses Earth’s Atmosphere to Detect Cosmic Rays

NASA’s next super pressure balloon (SPB) mission out of Wanaka, New Zealand, is enabling a pioneering method for studying high-energy cosmic rays from space using a detector looking down on the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Extreme Universe Space Observatory on a Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB) is a mission of opportunity flying on the 2017 SPB test flight with the goal of detecting high-energy cosmic rays from the farthest reaches of space as they penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere.

As these high-energy particles enter the atmosphere, they interact with nitrogen molecules in the air and create a UV fluorescence light. EUSO will be flying at some 110,000 feet (33.5 km) looking down on a broad swathe of the Earth’s atmosphere to detect the UV fluorescence from these deep space cosmic rays coming in from above.

Angela Olinto, professor at the University of Chicago and EUSO-SPB principal investigator, discusses the mission, science, and team behind it all in this video.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand Visits NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon Operations in Wanaka; Some 250 Attend Open House

CDA Green Visit
The acting U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand, Chargé d’Affaires Candy Green (second from right), visited Wanaka Airport March 23 to see NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon Operations first-hand. With (left to right), Rachel Gregg, Engineering Physics undergraduate student, Colorado School of Mines; Debbie Fairbrother, Chief, NASA’s Balloon Program Office; and Angela Olinto, University of Chicago, Principal Investigator of the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (seen in the background). (NASA/Bill Rodman)

The acting U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand, Chargé d’Affaires Candy Green, paid a visit to Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, March 23 to see first-hand NASA’s super pressure balloon operations, the science it supports, and the combined U.S.-Kiwi team behind it all.

Launch pad tour
Chargé d’Affaires Candy Green tours the new super pressure balloon launch pad at the Wanaka Airport with Ralph Fegan, Airport Operations Manager. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

While on site, Green observed the final flight readiness test of the University of Chicago’s Extreme Universe Space Observatory-Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB) payload, received updates on this year’s campaign and toured NASA’s new balloon launch pad.

In addition, Green presided over an impromptu NASA Honor Awards ceremony recognizing the contributions of a number of Kiwi officials crucial to establishing Wanaka as NASA’s mid-latitude, long-duration balloon facility.

Open House Event

During the visit, NASA, the Wanaka Airport, and the Queenstown Airport Corporation played host to a “Locals Day” Open House event, with nearly 250 members of the local community attending to learn more about the super pressure balloon technology and the science it supports.

“It was phenomenal to see such an incredible turnout from the community,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program chief. “We really appreciate all the support we’ve received here, the interest in our balloon program, and our partnership with the airport team. It’s just like family.”

2017 Wanaka Balloon Campaign Team
The 2017 New Zealand Super Pressure Balloon Campaign Team. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Launch Window Opens

The launch window for opened Saturday, March 25 (NZ time), however, the opening day did not present a launch opportunity due to forecast weather.

Forecast winds are variable at times and otherwise not aligned in a direction that will support a launch opportunity. Winds need to be light and flowing in a reliably easterly direction to support a launch attempt.

“Given all the variables we work with, the least of all being Mother Nature, seeing favorable launch conditions on the first day of a campaign’s launch window is uncommon for our operations,” said Gabe Garde, NASA mission manager for this year’s flight campaign. “As with previous campaigns, our team will assess weather daily to determine if the conditions are right to support a launch attempt.”

NASA Conducts Final Super Pressure Balloon Tests Prior to Launch Window Opening

NASA’s Scientific Balloon Team kicked off a day-long hang test of the Extreme Universe Space Observatory-Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB) payload March 23, a key step to certifying the flight readiness of this year’s super pressure balloon mission lifting off from Wanaka, New Zealand.

The hang test is a complete test of all primary balloon systems—tracking, telemetry, communications, and flight termination systems—as well as all redundant systems to ensure the flight readiness of the balloon and payload.

Engineers work on upper-fitting
Technicians with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility work on the upper-fitting of the super pressure balloon during integration operations. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

“All our test and integration work is running along smoothly,” said Gabe Garde, NASA mission manager for the super pressure balloon launch. “Today’s test is the culmination of more than a year of preparation work all leading up to the team declaring the balloon and payload as flight ready for the mission. After today, much will be in the hands of Mother Nature as well as in receiving overflight clearance permissions from a handful of countries.”

Earlier in the day March 23, NASA leadership at headquarters and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, home to NASA’s Balloon Program, granted “Approval to Proceed” or ATP for this year’s mission.

The launch window for the 2017 New Zealand super pressure balloon mission opens March 25. NASA will assess weather conditions day-to-day beginning Friday, March 24, to determine if conditions favor a next-day launch attempt. Current weather forecasts don’t appear favorable for a Saturday launch due to precipitation and winds; however, a final assessment won’t be made until March 24.

Later today, March 23, the Wanaka Airport and the NASA and Science teams on-site will host a Locals Day Open House event from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Wanaka Airport main hangar. Visitors will have the opportunity to learn more about the super pressure balloon technology, the EUSO-SPB science instrument flying on this year’s mission, and to meet and talk with the engineers and scientists who make it all happen.

EUSO-SPB payload
The Extreme Universe Space Observatory-SPB payload undergoes testing at Wanaka Airport. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

For more information on the EUSO-SPB mission, see: http://astroserve.mines.edu/euso_spb/2017-spb.html.

For more information on NASA’s Scientific Balloon program, see: www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons.