NASA has confirmed it will return to Wanaka to launch it's super-pressure balloon which will see the 18.8 million cubic foot balloon reach an altitude of 33.5 kilometres.

The space agency has also signed a deal with Wanaka Airport to host the launches for up to 10 years.

This is the third consecutive year NASA will launch the long-duration, heavy-lift super-pressure balloon (SPB) into one of the most dynamic and severe flight regimes inside the Earth's atmosphere.

The SPB is about the size of the Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin when fully inflated. The balloon is made from polyethylene film, which is similar in appearance and thickness to the type used for sandwich bags, but stronger and more durable.

Advertisement

After launch, planned for late March or early April, the SPB will ascend to an altitude of 33.5km where the stratospheric winds will propel it at speeds of at least 100 knots through the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle on a weeks-long journey around the Southern Hemisphere, said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA's Balloon Program Office chief.

"With 32 days of flight in 2015 and 46 days in 2016, we hope to build on the successes and lessons learned of our past campaigns as we seek even longer duration flights at mid-latitudes."

Members of NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team were set to arrive in Wanaka in this month to begin launch preparations.

"For some of the crew this is their third visit; we're excited to once again be part of the Wanaka community," Fairbrother said. "We appreciate the opportunity to work with Airways New Zealand, the Queenstown Lakes District Council, and the Wanaka Airport team to ensure yet another successful launch from Wanaka."

While the ongoing testing and development of the SPB is the focus of this year's mission, the NASA team is flying the University of Chicago's Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO-SPB) payload. The EUSO-SPB team's arrival in Wanaka will coincide with the CSBF team arrival.

EUSO-SPB is a high-energy cosmic ray particle astrophysics payload that will test a fluorescence detector and its supporting technologies under the severe operating conditions of the stratosphere. This sub-orbital flight is a precursor for a mission being planned to launch the EUSO telescope to and install it on the International Space Station.

New to the 2017 campaign will be the much-anticipated construction of a dedicated balloon launch pad on the northeast side of the Wanaka Airport.

This new pad, a 600-metre in diameter gravel semi-circle, will enable NASA's balloon launch operations to run seamlessly alongside other airport operations and tenants on launch day. Nasa will still operate out of a leased hangar on site.