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Two super pressure balloon (SPB) launches from Wnaka, New Zealand, are planned by NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program to further examine and qualify the technology, which could be less expensive than space missions.
In cooperation with the Queenstown Airport Corporation, Queenstown Lake District Council, New Zealand Space Agency, and Airways New Zealand, NASA conducts SPB launches from New Zealand. NASA is flying science payloads on each of the two launches, even though their primary purpose is to test the SPB technology. The balloons’ flights, which are expected to last up to 100 days or more, can be made visible from the ground.
NASA’s super pressure balloon technology
Super pressure balloon technology, according to Debbie Fair brother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief based at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, is a real game-changer for implementing cutting-edge science at the edge of space at a substantially lower price of flying into space. One mission that will look into space to study galaxy clusters and one that will examine high-energy particles from outside our galaxy are just two examples of the astounding work that is planned for this year.
The Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (Super BIT) from Princeton University will fly on the first scheduled flight. This telescope uses a wide angle of view to detect massive galaxy clusters from a balloon platform in a relatively close environment.
The University of Chicago’s Extreme Universe Space Observatory 2 (EUSO-2) mission, which aims to expand on data gathered during a 2017 mission, will be launched on the second mission. Super BIT would be capable of identifying the dark matter existing in these clusters by measuring how these massive objects deform the space around them, a process known as ‘weak gravitational lensing.’
Ultra-high energy cosmic ray particles that originate outside of our galaxy will be found by EUSO-2 as they enter the atmosphere. Since it is unknown where these particles come from, the information gathered by EUSO-2 will aid in resolving this scientific conundrum.
According to Fairbrother, NASA invites the public to observe these missions as they travel the world over the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. At float altitude, the wind’s velocity and direction determine a balloon’s flight path. The missions will spend the greater amount of time over water, and for any land crossings, NASA coordinates country overflight approvals with the U.S. State Department.
Earlier missions and confrontations
From Wnaka, NASA has launched three SPBs, one each in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a planned 2020 campaign was shelved, and a ground system anomaly prevented the agency’s 2022 campaign from launching.
Long-duration balloon flight is a huge challenge, and each flight promotion contributes to learning from mistakes to advance not only balloon technology but also our operational practises, according to Fairbrother.
For airborne systems, including balloons, maintaining a consistent float height in the stratosphere is a formidable challenge. Due to the oscillating warming and cooling of the day-night cycle, the majority of top panel zero pressure balloons can vary in altitude by as much as 45,000 feet (13.7 km). In order to maintain altitude, mission controllers typically release extra weight in the form of ballast. Contrarily, the SPB is built to maintain a positive internal pressure and shape regardless of its surroundings, which maintains the balloon at a stable float altitude without losing ballast.
At its operational float altitude of 110,000 feet, the 18.8 million cubic foot (532,000 cubic metre) balloon is helium-filled and roughly the size of a football stadium when fully inflated (33.5 kilometers). The designated NASA launch site for high-latitude, protracted balloon missions is Wnaka.
With 10 to 15 flights per year from launch sites around the world, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia oversees the agency’s programme for scientific balloon flights. For NASA’s scientific balloon programme, Peraton, which runs the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in Texas, offers mission planning, engineering support, and field operations. Over the course of 40 years, the CSBF team has launched more than 1,700 scientific balloons.