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)


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)

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)