An amazingly huge helium-filled balloon belonging to the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is
likely to be launched from Wanaka Airport sometime in March
What Nasa calls its Ultra Long Duration Balloon, which is as
big as a rugby pitch and occupies 0.4 million cubic metres,
is capable of carrying four tonnes of scientific equipment to
the edge of space and holding it there for 100 days.
A contingent from Nasa was in Wanaka yesterday discussing
with airport manager Ralph Fegan the logistics of
test-launching a balloon.
Nasa Columbia scientific balloon facility operations manager
Dwayne Orr told the Otago Daily Times the idea had
been well received by Queenstown Airport Corporation Ltd,
which owns the Wanaka Airport, and his team was working
towards a launch date in March.
A team of 20 Nasa staff would be on site for about six weeks.
The balloon would be launched early in the morning and for
safety reasons the airport would need to be shut down for
about two hours. People on the site would be required to be
Viewing areas were being identified for the public.
''We will have places outside of a 3km circle that will
probably have public viewing places,'' Mr Orr said.
The launch would only be carried out in very low winds.
''We have a high level of confidence in our ability to launch
these balloons in a very safe manner and deal with any
anomalies in the weather,'' he said.
The balloon launches were a very inexpensive way of getting
scientific equipment into space, the cost being around $1
million to $2 million.
''It's a very inexpensive and efficient way to provide
scientists access to the space environment for research.''
Mr Orr said while the test balloon would carry no equipment,
normally it would carry equipment similar to that once
carried by the space shuttle.
Mr Orr said scientific balloons operated to an altitude of
33km, which was above 99.7% of Earth's atmosphere.
This was a ''a great environment'', he said, for studying the
ozone layer, cosmic rays, astrophysics, other planets and the
beginning of the universe.
Similar balloons had been launched from the Antarctic and
Sweden. Mr Orr said the Wanaka area was chosen because of its
''Wanaka gives us that access to a mid-latitude location and
also allows us to launch a balloon and stay out of
politically sensitive areas in the northern hemisphere.''
Mr Orr said the balloon would be controlled initially from
It would then be handed over to operators in Texas and be
directed to circumnavigate the globe several times before
being brought down by parachute somewhere in South America.
Mr Orr said the ''very tentative plan'' was to launch the
test balloon in March and then repeat the process the
following year, and every two years after that.