NASA schedules super pressure balloon launch attempt

Balloon Gondola Hang Test
A NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility technician performs work during a balloon gondola compatibility test in Wanaka, New Zealand. (NASA/Dave Helfrich)

NASA is targeting Saturday, April 9 (Friday, April 8 in Eastern Time), to conduct a super pressure balloon (SPB) test flight launching from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, on a potentially 100-day journey.

Forecast surface and low-level winds are currently marginal for supporting a launch attempt.

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 8).

“While conditions are marginal, a slight shift in the weather pattern could put us in the zone,” said Dwayne Orr, campaign manager with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.

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. Once launched, the 532,000-cubic-meter (18.8-million-cubic-foot) balloon will ascend to an operational float altitude of 33.5 kilometers (110,000 feet) flying an eastward trajectory. 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.

This launch is NASA’s second super pressure balloon mission from Wanaka; the first launch occurred March 27, 2015, flying 32 days, 5 hours, and 51 minutes in the most rigorous test environment flown by an SPB to date.

Flying as a mission of opportunity on this year’s flight is the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), a gamma-ray telescope 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 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.

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

Launch Viewing Information

Wanaka Airport officials advise that local residents and visitors will have the best vantage points for the launch from:
• The Hawea Flat side of the Clutha River
• Atop Mount Iron
• On the hill on the Hawea side of the Red Bridge by Kane Rd.

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
• For the live broadcast from Wanaka Airport tune in to Radio Wanaka 97.0FM

Piggyback Payloads Flying on NASA’s Super Balloon

Weather update: No super pressure balloon launch attempt for Friday, April 8, due to poor weather; officials will meet Friday afternoon to determine if Saturday’s weather will support a launch attempt from Wanaka, New Zealand. (All dates are New Zealand).

The primary mission of NASA’s super pressure balloon (SPB) flight from Wanaka, New Zealand, is to test and validate the SPB technology itself with the goal of long-duration flight (100+ days) at mid-latitudes. While that mission is the main focus, a few other payloads are taking advantage of the remaining room on the gondola to piggyback a ride to the near-space environment.

Notably, we’ve discussed on this blog the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) gamma-ray telescope, an endeavor by the University of California, Berkeley, flying on the super pressure balloon. With long-duration flight in the southern hemisphere key to COSI’s success, Principal Investigator Steven Boggs explains how COSI will work in the video clip below.

In addition, Daniel Bowman, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is flying a modified version of his Carolina Infrasound instrument. Infrasound is too low pitched for the human ear to detect, but the vast majority of the Earth’s natural soundscape lies in this frequency band. The small, three-kilogram payload consists of three infrasound microphones, a data logger, and power supply.

The Carolina Infrasound instrument previously flew on the High-Altitude Student Platform (HASP) mission, a student payload flight that launches from Fort Sumner, N.M., annually each fall on a NASA zero-pressure balloon. “Over the last two years, infrasound microphone arrays flown on the HASP have revealed a remarkably complex acoustic wave field in the stratosphere,” said Bowman. “While some of these signals are similar to those seen on ground-based arrays, others appear to be new to science.”

Recordings from Bowman’s infrasound microphones created quite a buzz in the press last year, with some referring to the sounds as eerie and “alien-like.” (An audio sample is available by clicking here.)

The Carolina Infrasound instrument
The Carolina Infrasound instrument is pictured here in its flight ready state on the super pressure balloon gondola. Each pair of tubes leads to pressure ports on the infrasound microphones; the ends of the tubes will be exposed to the ambient air during flight. Daniel Bowman, PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has conducted multiple studies of the acoustic wave field in the stratosphere flying infrasound microphones on NASA scientific balloon missions.

Infrasound measurements are made regularly on ground-based stations, but stratospheric acoustics is a relatively unexplored field: the last observations prior to the UNC HASP experiment occurred over half a century ago. Thus, the prospect of long-duration flights in the southern hemisphere could expand the envelope of Bowman’s infrasound studies previously conducted on HASP.

HASP balloon flights average around 24 hours, which means for instruments like Bowman’s, the amount of area covered is relatively small. In addition, there are challenges in discerning human-generated acoustic signals from those naturally occurring given the operational area of HASP flights. With a long-duration flight largely over water, Bowman hopes to probe a number of additional scientific questions, such as what is the acoustic wave field of the stratosphere in the lower southern hemisphere and how does topography and the diurnal cycle influence it.

Traveling Al, a native of Roswell, N.M., is seen flying atop a balloon gondola antenna boom during a test flight that launched from Fort Sumner, N.M., Oct. 10, 2015. Having flown just 11 hours and 27 minutes on that flight, Al is looking forward to traveling around the world on a long duration flight aboard NASA's super pressure balloon, launching from Wanaka, New Zealand.
Traveling Al, a native of Roswell, N.M., is seen flying atop a balloon gondola antenna boom during a test flight that launched from Fort Sumner, N.M., Oct. 10, 2015. Having flown just 11 hours and 27 minutes on that flight, Al is looking forward to traveling around the world on a long duration flight aboard NASA’s super pressure balloon, launching from Wanaka, New Zealand.

Finally, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility’s unofficial mascot Ali En (better known to the team as “Traveling Al”) is hitching a ride on this year’s super pressure balloon flight. A veteran of one previous balloon flight, Al is looking forward to a long-duration flight around the world. As the balloon circumnavigates the globe and traverses landmasses at mid-latitude, Al’s mission is to assure spotters they are seeing a NASA scientific balloon and not a UFO.

NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon by the Numbers

View looking up at a super pressure balloon
View of a super pressure balloon as seen from a gondola camera looking up. Looking closely at the balloon, one can see the different sections or gores–280 altogether–that are heat sealed together to build the balloon. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

NASA’s super pressure balloon team in Wanaka, New Zealand, continues to evaluate weather daily for conditions that could support a launch attempt of the pumpkin-shaped, football-stadium-sized balloon. At this time, the weather running through Thursday, April 7, will not support a launch attempt. Weekend weather is showing some potential, but the final call for any launch day won’t be made until the day before launch.

When the day comes…for those in the local area who plan to view launch from a nearby location, such as Mount Iron or the Hawea Flat side of the Clutha River, or those planning to watch on-line via NASA’s live webstream (http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-csbf-downrange-operations), what follows is our list of super pressure balloon fun facts sure to impress your friends and family on launch day.

NASA’s super pressure balloon by the numbers:

  • Volume of the balloon when fully inflated: 532,379 cubic meters (18.8 million cubic feet). How to explain it to your friends and family: “You could fit a football stadium inside the balloon when fully inflated!”
  • Diameter of the balloon when fully inflated: 114.5 meters (376 feet). How to explain it to your friends and family: “That’s nearly the length of six cricket pitches.” For those of you out there thinking this comparison refers to a large group of insects, go ahead and replace “cricket pitches” with “bowling alleys” to get roughly the same comparison (and then look up “cricket pitches” for future use).
  • Height when fully inflated: 68.96 meters (233 feet): How to explain it to your friends and family: “Same as the wingspan of a Boeing 747.”
  • Altitude at float: 33.5 kilometers (110,000 feet): How to explain it to your friends and family: “Wow—that’s high!” At NASA, we call that the near-space environment above 99.9 percent of the atmosphere.
  • Amount of balloon film used to make the balloon (the film is polyethylene—the same material used in sandwich bags, though our film is much stronger and more durable): 8.9 hectares (22 acres): How to explain it to your friends and family: “That’s one big sandwich bag.” Put another way: “The area of about nine rugby fields or 60 hockey rinks.”
  • Combined weight of the balloon and payload for this mission: 4,500 kilograms (9,920 pounds): How to explain it to your friends and family: “That’s roughly 10 grand pianos or 2.5 mid-size cars. Other useful comparisons: 55 kangaroos, 100 toilets, or 1,000 cats. Using the convenience of the metric system: about 4,500 liters of water.

Forecasting from the Ground up to the Edge of Space

Daily weather briefing
Robert Mullenax, meteorologist with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, briefs members of the super pressure balloon team on the predicted flight trajectory of the balloon based on current weather conditions during a daily weather briefing Monday, April 4. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Weather.

Most of us are content with tuning into the news, picking up a newspaper, opening up a smartphone app, or perhaps even relying on a trick knee to get a general sense of the day’s weather outlook. Cloudy, sunny, rainy, windy, snowy. Pleasant, frigid, heat wave, cold snap.

With the daily forecast in hand, we’re armed with that perfect, universal conversation starter that gets us by as we wait for our morning dose of caffeine to take effect. Lovely weather today. Looks like rain this afternoon. Frosty morning, but things are looking up. Good day for fishing.

But, is it a good day for launching a NASA super pressure balloon?

That’s the first question Robert Mullenax asks each morning as he drives into his office at Wanaka Airport under the blanket of morning darkness, long before most of us are awake. He fires up his computers, starts taking low-level wind measurements, and studies gigabytes of weather data, including sophisticated weather models, all of which help him determine if the next day is good for a launch attempt.

“There’s no model out there as good as a human being,” remarks the senior meteorologist with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF).

And, there are no human meteorologists who know more about forecasting for large scientific balloons than the meteorologists of CSBF.

With 25 years of forecasting for balloon launches at diverse locations around the globe, the daily weather picture Mullenax paints is – more often than not – the driving factor behind the campaign manager’s final decision to enter a launch attempt or pass for the day.

It’s a complicated process. While Wanaka’s weather is nearly always pleasant as viewed by the layperson, to support a balloon launch, weather forecasts need to align at multiple areas of the atmosphere from the ground to the edge of space.

Timing is key. For a typical launch day, the team needs to start work around midnight, pulling the 2,200 kg payload out of the hangar to begin attaching the solar arrays that will power the instruments during flight. Winds need to be light to facilitate the work.

As launch operations progress through the early morning hours leading up to launch, surface level weather needs to be characterized by light winds flowing in a reliable direction. In addition, given the length of the balloon flight train at launch, some 250 meters, weather at that altitude is also a factor. At 250 meters, wind speeds need to be light and wind direction needs to align with the surface level direction. Opposing winds can create a shearing effect. It is the days with light/variable and opposing winds that can make a seemingly very nice day totally unacceptable for launching a large super pressure balloon.

The winter stratospheric cyclone
The winter stratospheric cyclone, pictured here, is defined by eastwardly pointing wind vectors about Antarctica and extending into the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes. On a given launch day, weather conditions on the ground up to 250 meters in addition to conditions in the stratosphere are all key considerations prior to entering into a launch attempt.

Higher up, Mullenax is also monitoring wind direction in the stratosphere at 33.5 kilometers where the balloon will fly operationally. (More precisely, as Mullenax is quick to point out, the balloon floats at a pressure altitude of 7 millibars, which roughly equates to 33.5 kilometers but can vary slightly depending on atmospheric temperatures.)

A weather phenomena known as the stratospheric winter cyclone develops this time of year in the southern hemisphere. The cyclone is characterized by wind vectors traveling easterly about Antarctica with the cyclonic behavior extending into the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes. “The stratospheric winter cyclone is the only stratospheric circulation that consistently sets up for 100 or more days without breaking down,” said Mullenax. “Launching into it, combined with the fact we fly mostly over water, is how you’re going to achieve long-duration balloon flight.”

Even after lift-off, the daily forecasting continues. As the balloon flies around the globe at mid-latitudes, daily forecasts are key to anticipating cold storms, which could cause a momentary drop in altitude. In addition, as the balloon nears a land mass, wind speed and direction plays into the modeling that determines whether or not the mission can continue safely or not. Avoiding densely populated areas is key. Finally, weather is a vital aspect of predicting where the payload and balloon material will land once the mission objectives are met and the flight is terminated.

Having declared the balloon and payload flight ready April 1, the team is relying on Mother Nature to make the next step. Mullenax continues to pour over copious amounts of weather data and applies the human touch to each forecast. At 11 a.m. each day, he briefs the team on his forecast for the timeframe running from midnight to launch, covering conditions on the ground, at 250 meters, and in the stratosphere at 33.5 kilometers, (errr…7 millibars). Then the decision is made.

It can be a long process waiting for the ideal day, even at a location with weather as pleasant as Wanaka’s. “There’s no perfect location for launch,” says Mullenax. “But Wanaka is a great place to launch and gives us the best chance to meet all of our criteria.”

The Compton Spectrometer and Imager explained

Dr. Steven Boggs, professor and head of the Department of Physics, University of California, Berkeley, describes the objectives of the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), a gamma-ray telescope set for liftoff to the near space environment via a NASA super pressure balloon.

The balloon launch is scheduled for no earlier than Monday, April 4, from Wanaka, New Zealand, NASA’s location for launching mid-latitude, southern hemisphere balloon missions.

Successful Compatibility Test Paves Way for Wanaka Balloon Launch

Technicians with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) reached a major milestone Wednesday, March 30, after successfully completing an instrument compatibility test in preparation for launching a super pressure balloon from Wanaka, New Zealand.

The daylong test, also referred to as a hang test because it involves suspending the payload from the launch crane and hooking the entire system up from top to bottom, verified the balloon and science instrument systems are compatible and operating as designed.

The test involved technicians on site in Wanaka and back at CSBF’s operational control center in Palestine, Texas, which verified the ability to receive and send data from the payload to the satellites and back to the control center.

“The hang test is our most critical milestone from a mission assurance perspective,” said Dwayne Orr, CSBF program manager. “This successful test moves us one step closer toward officially declaring our balloon flight ready for launch.”

NASA’s balloon team in Wanaka will conduct a flight readiness review Friday, April 1, which is the final step to declaring the balloon ready for launch operations.

Current weather predictions show winds and precipitation exceeding launch criteria at least through Saturday, April 2. NASA will assess weather conditions for a possible launch attempt Sunday, April 3, and announce status via media and social media no later than 2 p.m. Saturday, April 2.

Compatibility Testing Begins for Super Balloon

NASA conducts compatibility test for balloon launch
Technicians with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility begin the compatibility test on the balloon payload in preparation for the agency’s upcoming super pressure balloon launch from Wanaka, New Zealand. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

In preparation for its upcoming super pressure balloon launch, NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility kicked off a compatibility test Wednesday, March 30, at Wanaka Airport.

The test, also referred to as a hang test because it involves suspending the payload from the launch crane and hooking the entire system up from top to bottom, is designed to verify the balloon and science instrument systems are compatible and operating as designed.

As of press time, the test was still ongoing. In the meantime, current weather predictions show winds and precipitation exceeding launch criteria at least through Saturday, April 2. NASA will assess weather conditions for a possible launch attempt Sunday, April 3, and announce status via media and social media no later than 2 p.m. Saturday, April 2.

Balloon Team Prepares for Good Day, Stands Ready for Anything

Tabletop exercise
Juan Perez, Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility Long-Duration Balloon engineer, discusses actions he would take in response to a potential launch day off-nominal or abnormal scenario during a tabletop exercise March 29. The exercise is standard procedure for the launch team to help ensure mission success. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Tuesday’s preparations for the upcoming super pressure balloon launch from Wanaka, New Zealand, kicked off with a weather forecast for Friday, April 1, the first potential launch opportunity for the team. At this time, the weather for Friday is less than ideal for launch, but the team continues to monitor conditions and will make a decision no later than 2 p.m. Thursday, March 31, (New Zealand time) whether or not to make a launch attempt.

In the meantime, the team is preparing for a balloon gondola hang test Wednesday, March 30, to ensure the science team’s instruments and the balloon system’s instruments are compatible and operating as designed.

One issue identified in preparation for tomorrow’s test was the presence of a French CASA CN-235 medium-range twin turboprop aircraft parked in the hang test operational area. The aircraft, which flew during the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow, was awaiting maintenance parts. Well-versed in moving aircraft from the previous day’s activities, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Team used its forklift to tow the aircraft to another location to enable Wednesday’s hang test. At this time, the test is scheduled to kick-off at 8 a.m.

Other preparation activities included reviewing nominal or normal launch procedures during a meeting Monday, March 28, and then conducting a thorough tabletop exercise reviewing off-nominal or abnormal launch scenarios Tuesday, March 29.

Launch prep tabletop exercise
Officials with NASA, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, Wanaka Airport, Queenstown Airport Corporation, and Raven Aerostar, discuss potential “what if” scenarios during a tabletop exercise March 29. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

A number of “what if” scenarios were posed to the CSBF team, scenarios ranging from errant pressure gauges, electrical glitches, to inflation issues. The team tries to prepare for all potential situations with a focus on safety and mission success. Officials from Wanaka Airport and Queenstown Airport Corporation participated in the tabletop exercise event along with personnel from NASA, CSBF, the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) science team, and Raven Aerostar, the company that built the super pressure balloon.

Belly-landed Aircraft Gets a Lift from NASA’s Balloon Team

NASA balloon program helps airport emergency response
Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility technicians on-site in Wanaka, New Zealand, for NASA’s scheduled super pressure balloon launch operations assist Wanaka Airport emergency responders in moving a World War II-era plane that belly-landed at the airport March 28. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

A little post-airshow excitement occurred at Wanaka Airport March 28 when a World War II era Harvard aircraft safely belly landed on the airport’s runway around 9:30 a.m. March 28.

After touching down, the aircraft’s landing gear apparently collapsed, bringing the aircraft’s belly down to the runway surface.

No injuries were reported in the incident, but airport operations had to pause while officials devised a means to safely clear the Harvard from the runway. Looking for a lift, the airport team turned to NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team and the knuckleboom crane it has on site.

CSBF team helps with emergency response
Alec Beange helps work the knuckleboom crane to lift a Harvard aircraft off the Wanaka Airport’s runway. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Technicians Randall Henderson, Jacob Richard, Curtis Frazier, Corey Weber, and Alec Beange assisted airport emergency operations staff who worked to secure straps about the aircraft to ensure a safe lift with the knuckleboom.

With the straps in place, the CSBF team maneuvered the knuckleboom into position, hooked the straps, and slowly lifted the plane off the ground. Once lifting the plane about two feet (.66 meters) off the runway, emergency crews slid a helicopter dolly underneath the plane. The CSBF crew slowly placed the aircraft on the dolly, and from there, crews were easily able to move the aircraft from the runway and resume flight operations.

“All in day’s work,” said Dwayne Orr, CSBF program manager, speaking on the team’s ability to rapidly shift gears from balloon operations to airport emergency response. “We feel a close bond with the airport community here, and we’re proud to have been of assistance in the response. We’re all thankful no one was hurt in the incident.”

CSBF assists with emergency response
A World War II-era Harvard aircraft is lifted onto a helicopter dolly for transport off the Wanaka Airfield after the aircraft’s landing gear collapsed. (NASA/Bill Rodman)