Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

NASA's super balloon launches return to Wanaka as part of 10-year deal

NASA's super balloon at Wanaka last year. It was airborne for 46 days.
NASA's super balloon at Wanaka last year. It was airborne for 46 days.

NASA has committed to super balloon launches at Wanaka Airport for 10 years.

Wanaka Airport operations manager Ralph Fegan said the United States space organsation would return for its third super pressure balloon launch, scheduled for late March or early April, and will be committing to the site as one of its global launch bases for up to 10 years.

"They're now familiar faces in our community and it's great to have them back," said Ralph.

Long-duration balloon flights at constant altitudes play an important role in providing relatively inexpensive access to the near-space environment for science and technology.

Last year the launch by the 532,000 cubic metre balloon was delayed several times because of unfavourable weather.

The balloon's operational float altitude was 33.5km.

The project has provided a significant boost to the local economy.

In 2015, the it is estimated the benefits to both Wanaka and New Zealand were worth at least US$1.25 million.

Queenstown Airport, which manages Wanaka Airport on behalf of owner Queenstown Lakes District Council, has worked closely with NASA to secure the agreement.

The agreement has paved the way for NASA to invest in a longer term base of operations and, subject to required consents and approvals, it will move to land on the north-east side of Wanaka Airport and create a dedicated balloon launch pad.

Queenstown Airport chief executive Colin Keel believes the new arrangement is testimony to the confidence NASA has in Wanaka.

"The opportunity for Wanaka to host NASA's launches successfully in 2015 and 2016 was a real privilege and we're thrilled that it's culminated in the team making a long term commitment to invest in the region."

More than 60 NASA operations specialists, senior managers and scientists have made Wanaka their temporary home over the last two years, with another 35-strong team expected for this year's launch.

Members of NASA's Columbia Scientific balloon facility (CSBF) team will begin arriving in Wanaka this month along with scientists from the University of Chicago's Extreme Universe Space Observatory.

- NZ Herald

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