Why Wanaka Works Well for NASA Balloons

Super pressure balloon launch: Wanaka 2015
A super pressure balloon is fully inflated and ready to launch from Wanaka Airport during NASA’s 2015 long-duration, mid-latitude scientific balloon campaign in New Zealand.

As the location for NASA’s long-duration, mid-latitude super pressure balloon missions, one might ask: Why Wanaka, New Zealand? Six reasons come to mind: latitude, attitude, solitude, duration, weather and night.

Some science experiments need to observe phenomena in the sky at locations only accessible by launching mid-latitude balloon flights centered around 45 degrees south latitude. Wanaka Airport, at 44 degrees 43 minutes south latitude, is a near perfect location for these missions. In addition, the galactic center of the Milky Way, which is the focus for many science investigations, is only visible in the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes.

The support from the local community and the airport staff make Wanaka an excellent place to launch. In addition, requirements for a launch location include access to a launch area such as a runway as well as access to heavy equipment, housing for staff, restaurants, support services, and more. While parts of New Zealand are remote, the easy access to all of these areas makes Wanaka an ideal place to launch.

From a flight safety perspective, it is much more desirable to fly over unpopulated areas. By launching into the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes from Wanaka, much of the balloon’s flight path is over water and the few potential land crossings are largely over sparsely populated areas.

The key to flying long duration is to launch into the southern hemisphere’s stratospheric winter cyclone, a weather phenomenon that develops in the fall characterized by easterly winds that produce a clockwise stratospheric airflow about Antarctica on up to mid-latitudes. Wanaka’s location enables launches into the stratospheric cyclone during this time of year.

Wanaka offers excellent weather conditions for NASA’s scientific balloon launches. Mornings are often characterized by light winds with a steady, uniform direction during this time of year allowing for more potential launch opportunities.

NASA’s other long-duration balloon flight launch locations, Antarctica and Sweden, are conducive for operations in constant daylight. However, some science missions require nighttime observations, often for extended periods of time. The predictable diurnal cycles (day/night cycles) make Wanaka ideal for instruments that need nighttime for observations.

NASA Balloon Program Supports Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow

Balloon Program conducts outreach at Warbirds Airshow
Magdi Said, NASA’s Balloon Program Office, demonstrates the durability of balloon film while exhibiting during the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow March 25-27 in New Zealand. (NASA/Dave Helfrich)

The first A in NASA was celebrated to the full in Wanaka, New Zealand, this Easter weekend with more than 50,000 turning out for the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow.

The biennial homage to aeronautics past and present featured aircraft from World War II to the present, fixed wing and rotary aircraft, as well as modern evolutions of mankind’s first flying machines: balloons.

NASA’s scientific balloon program exhibited during the three-day event highlighting the balloons NASA flies in worldwide locations, and more specifically, the super pressure balloon set to fly from Wanaka.

The team begins flight preparations in earnest Monday with the goal of declaring flight readiness by the end of the week. The team could launch as early as April 1, depending on weather conditions on the ground and in the stratosphere.

Balloon exhibit
Visitors to the Wanaka Airshow visit NASA’s Balloon Program exhibit. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
COSI Team at Wanaka Airshow
Cheng-Liu (Alan) Chiu, member of the Compton Spectrometer and Imager team, talks to visitors about the COSI gamma ray telescope while exhibiting during the Wanaka Airshow. COSI is set to launch on NASA’s super pressure balloon April 1, weather dependent. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
NASA's Balloon Program exhibit at the Wanaka Airshow
Visitors to NASA’s Balloon Program exhibit at the Wanaka Airshow learn about NASA’s super pressure balloon, set to launch from Wanaka April 1. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow
Helicopters take to the sky during the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow, which ran March 25-27. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Wanaka Airshow 2016
A formation of nine planes performs a loop during the Wanaka Airshow. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
C-130 at Wanaka Airshow
A C-130 takes to the skies during the Wanaka Airshow. (NASA/Bill Rodman)
Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow attendees
Officials estimated that more than 50,000 visitors attended the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow March 25-27. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Super Pressure Balloon a highlight during New Zealand Airshow

New and vintage planes zoomed over the skies in Wanaka, New Zealand, during the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow, a biennial homage to aviation history as well as an aerobatics spectacle.

With history a focal point of the event, NASA’s Balloon Program proved a perfect fit alongside the warbirds, serving as a gentle reminder that before the first plane took to the skies, more than a hundred years earlier, there were balloons.

Of course, much has changed since the early balloon flights. Instead of smoke-filled paper balloons that defined ballooning’s first steps, today NASA flies enormous, helium-filled balloons, some up to 40 million cubic feet in volume (1.13 million cubic meters). Scientific balloons can carry up to 8,000 pounds (3,630 kg) up to 130,000 feet (39.63 km) in altitude. At that height, the balloons are flying in the near space environment, above 99.5 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists have seen the benefit of balloon platforms for many years, often testing out new sensors and instruments before eventually integrating onto satellites for launch into space. In addition, the development of long-duration ballooning is opening the envelope for conducting certain types of scientific investigations that otherwise would need to fly into space.

Balloon display set up
Technicians with NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility inflate a zero-pressure balloon model as part of a display for the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow March 25-27 in New Zealand. A super pressure balloon model is seen in the background. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Back to the airshow, which is expected to see some 50,000 through the Easter weekend, NASA set up an exhibit at the Wanaka Airport showcasing the two different types of balloons the agency flies: a zero pressure balloon and a super pressure balloon. On Thursday, March 24, the exhibit was open for local residents to peruse in advance of the airshow.

While the airshow officially kicks off Saturday, March 26, Friday served as a full dress rehearsal for the airshow performers, providing an additional opportunity to showcase NASA’s balloon program. Visitors slowly cycled into the hangar containing the balloon exhibit, and as the sun came up and the day got warmer, the crowds steadily increased.

Local residents peruse NASA balloon exhibit
Henry Cathey, Super Pressure Balloon project engineer, talks about the balloon flight train to local residents visiting NASA’s scientific balloon exhibit at the Wanaka Airport March 24. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Robert H. Goddard Honor Award ceremonies on opposite sides of the globe

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center conducted its semiannual Robert H. Goddard Honor Awards ceremony at the center’s Greenbelt campus on Tuesday, March 22. Among those honored was the Mid-Latitude Southern Hemisphere Long-Duration Balloon (LDB) Team for their work in establishing Wanaka, New Zealand, as a site for NASA’s Scientific Balloon missions in 2015. Representatives from NASA’s Balloon Program Office and Orbital ATK were on hand to receive the award.

A few more honorees were unable to attend the ceremony, and for good reason: they were on the other side of the globe in Wanaka, New Zealand. Applying a little bit of creativity and innovation, NASA’s Balloon Team conducted an impromptu Goddard Awards Ceremony to recognize the Kiwi members of the LDB team during a reception hosted by the Wanaka Airport staff.

Goddard Honor Awards in New Zealand
Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program chief, presents Sir Timothy Wallis and Ralph Fegan, Wanaka Airport Manager, with Robert H. Goddard Honor Award certificates. Sir Timothy, a longtime businessman and aviation entrepreneur, accepted the award on behalf of his son, Jonathan. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Those in New Zealand receiving honors were:

  • Ralph Fegan, Wanaka Airport Manager
  • Michele Poole, Queenstown Lakes District Council
  • Jen Andrews, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Chris Johnson, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Bill Wrigley, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Chris Read, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Mike Clay, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Terry Dower, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Doug McKay, Queenstown Airport Corporation
  • Dave Park, Astral Aviation Consultants
  • Andy Boyd, Airways New Zealand
  • Scott Scrimgeour, Airways New Zealand
  • Jonathan Wallis, The Alpine Group Ltd

“Our program is worldwide, and as such, it takes a worldwide effort to be successful,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “The Wanaka Community has provided tremendous support to the balloon program, and it’s only fitting that they share in our success as well.”

Super Pressure Balloon presentation
Debbie Fairbrother, Balloon Program Office chief, gives an overview of NASA’s super pressure balloon operations in Wanaka during a reception at the Wanaka Airport. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Continuing on a theme of community, over the next several days the Balloon Program Office will support the biennial Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow with an exhibit and guest speaker presentations throughout the event.

COSI presentation
Dr. Steve Boggs, Professor and Head of the Department of Physics, University of California, Berkeley, provides an overview of the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), which will fly on the super pressure balloon test flight launching from Wanaka in April. (NASA/Bill Rodman)

Payload recovery key capability for NASA balloons

NASA’s scientific balloon technicians marked another flight checklist item complete today after joining the base fitting of the Super Pressure Balloon (SPB) to the payload parachute. After making the connection, technicians worked to verify power and signal cables were aligned and properly connected. The team continues to work toward an April 1 launch date from Wanaka, New Zealand.

The work today highlights a particularly beneficial aspect of NASA’s balloon flights: the ability to recover the payload after flight objectives have been met. Once mission objectives have been met, but while the balloon is still at float, operators work with NASA safety officials to assess a safe area to terminate the balloon flight. As part of the assessment, officials factor in the real-time position of the balloon, forecast wind speed and direction, and whether or not the balloon is near a population center. After determining the balloon is in a position where public safety will be protected, operators send flight termination commands to bring the payload back to Earth via parachute.

Once on the ground, a recover team will go to the landing site to recover both the payload and the balloon.

The work completed today in joining the balloon to the parachute and verifying all supporting systems are operating normally is a vital step toward ensuring the ability to recover the balloon payload.

(Note: In the video, the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload and gondola is seen on the far left. COSI is flying as a mission of opportunity on this year’s SPB test flight. For more information on COSI, please see: http://cosi.ssl.berkeley.edu.)

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!