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NASA Super Pressure Balloon Begins Journey Around The Earth

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The super pressure balloon (SPB) of NASA has started its journey around the world Tuesday morning – a test flight aimed at offering access to a sensational, inexpensive peek into stratospheric conditions.

The high-pressure balloon was launched by the space agency from Wanaka Airport in New Zealand at 11:35 a.m. on May 17, with hopes it will stay up there and travel around the globe for at least 100 days at mid-latitudes. This projected flight time is around double the current record.

The high-tech gondola is carrying the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), a gamma-ray telescope developed by UC Berkeley scientists, and infrasound microphones from UNC Chapel Hill for recording acoustic wave field action in the stratosphere.

Two hours and 9 minutes post-liftoff, the 18.8-million-cubic foot balloon reached 110,000 feet and was initially taken westward through southern Australia. According to NASA estimates, it will circumnavigate Earth once every one to three weeks, largely depending on stratospheric wind speeds.

“The team performed a brilliant launch operation today. The balloon is pressurized, healthy and well on its way for this important test mission,” said NASA balloon program chief Debbie Fairbrother.

The launch marked the second SPB flight for the telescope, a NASA-sponsored mission to investigate the mysterious birth of galactic elements and conduct groundbreaking studies of black holes and gamma rays. Long-haul flights are vital to these kinds of research, NASA argued.

To stay aloft for 100 days is no small feat: previous ones depended on sunlight to keep inside gas thermally expanded or hot enough to float. But since the sun goes down, there were necessary work-arounds, such as taking off from Antarctica during its summer season when there was constant sunlight.

Since NASA’s balloon is not beholden to solar power because of its own closed, pressurized system, it will display the potential of super pressure balloons to hurdle long-duration flights needed by scientific instruments for data gathering.

But why balloons? These are deemed low-cost, easy to build and require much less red tape than rocket launches, slashing years off preparation time required by each mission. They are considered an inexpensive access to near-space environment for exploring science.

Scientists waited since the second week of February in Wanaka for the right wind levels. It was the fifth launch attempt for them, as previous ones were scrubbed because of unfriendly weather.

Fairbrother added that the project is also a good training ground for next-generation scientists – grad students, for instance, “babysitting” their payload prior to launch.

“[This] is something they wouldn’t get to see for many years if we had to send them up on satellites,” she said.

The balloon may be visible from the ground at sunrise and sunset, particularly to those living in the southern hemisphere such as Argentina and South Africa. The curious ones may track flight progress in real-time here.

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