Space study lab floats up on balloon

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 next year.

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 under cover.

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 location.

''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 Wanaka.

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.

- mark.price@odt.co.nz