NASA on Sunday launched a balloon the size of a football stadium from Wānaka Airport on New Zealand’s South Island.
The primary purpose of the 100-day mission is to test the aircraft’s unique ‘super pressure’ technology, but it will also carry a telescope from Princeton University that uses a wide field of view to image large galaxy clusters.
NASA’s scientific balloon program chief, Debbie Fairbrother, said, “Mother nature shined down beautifully today, giving us the perfect conditions for a brilliant launch.
“I’m excited for this mission and the cutting-edge science it will perform.”
NASA’s super-pressure balloons are shaped like pumpkins and designed to travel “ultra-long” distances.
Because they’re entirely sealed, with no open ducts, gas can’t escape, meaning pressure builds up as the gas expands. It’s this innovation that allows them to fly for far longer than traditional hot air balloons.
“The super pressure balloon technology is a real game changer for conducting cutting-edge science at the edge of space at a fraction of the cost of flying into space,” said Fairbrother.
“Some of the mind-blowing work planned this year includes a mission peering into space to study galaxy clusters and another looking at high-energy particles from beyond our galaxy.”
NASA said it invites the public to follow its balloon missions as they take place around the Southern Hemisphere’s mid-latitudes.
“A balloon’s flight path is controlled by the wind speed and direction at float altitude,” said the space agency. “The missions will spend most of their time over water, and for any land crossings, NASA works with the US State Department to coordinate country overflight approvals. Real-time tracking of these flights is publicly available here.
“In addition, NASA publicises balloon launch and tracking information via the web at www.nasa.gov/balloons and across NASA’s social media platforms.
“While validating the super pressure balloon technology is the main flight objective, the balloon is also carrying the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) from Princeton University, which uses a wide field of view to image large galaxy clusters from a balloon platform in a near-space environment.
“By measuring the way these massive objects warp the space around them, also called ‘weak gravitational lensing,’ SuperBIT will be able to map the dark matter present in these clusters.”