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NMSU helps launch NASA balloon into the record books

A record-setting flight of a NASA developed super pressure pumpkin balloon was successfully launched from McMurdo Station in Antarctica by a team from New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF).

New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) helped launch this super pressure pumpkin balloon into a record-setting flight. Pictured is the balloon during inflation. (NMSU photo by Mike Smith, Ae

Launched on Dec. 27, 2008, the balloon is the largest successful single cell super pressure balloon ever flown. It has been flying at a stable altitude of 110,000 feet since its launch.

"Our Super Pressure Team is very proud of the tremendous success we are enjoying," said David Pierce, chief of the Balloon Program Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Center. "This 7 million cubic foot test flight has demonstrated that 100-day flights of large, heavy payloads is a realistic goal."

Conventional balloons flown by NASA are zero pressure balloons which drop significantly in altitude at night. Zero pressure balloons can fly for weeks in polar regions when exposed to constant sunlight, but many science users require flights conducted from mid-latitudes where the sun sets entirely.

The next generation of super pressure balloons should fly for up to 100 days with no altitude variation regardless of where they are flown. This will allow for longer missions of heavy instruments in locations around the world that were not possible before. The altitude stability during a flight will help improve the ability to gather data more efficiently.

"A large super pressure balloon flying at constant altitude with a heavy payload is the Holy Grail of scientific ballooning," said Danny R.J. Ball, site manager of PSL's CSBF. "People have been working on the problem since the 1960s without success. When perfected, these systems will allow NASA's balloon program to compete more favorably with full-blown satellite missions costing two orders of magnitude more."

The successful flight of the balloon is the result of years of technical development by a NASA led team of engineers and analysts, including NMSU's PSL, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, Aerostar International and several independent consultants.

Numerous ground tests of scaled models were performed to study the balloon's deployment and material loading under pressure. Preliminary flight tests of smaller balloons and extensive laboratory testing to determine material properties laid the groundwork for the record setting flight.

NMSU's PSL manages the 10-year, $238 million NASA contract for the operation, maintenance and engineering support of CSBF. There are about 80 employees working on the contract in Las Cruces, Palestine and Wallops Island, Virginia.

CSBF launches 15-20 balloons per year from sites in New Mexico, Sweden, Antarctica, South America and Australia. Balloons of up to 60 million cubic feet with payloads weighing as much as four tons are routinely launched to altitudes of 25 miles above the earth in support of experiments in cosmic ray, infrared, x-ray and sub-millimeter astronomy as well as a variety of scientific disciplines.

To track the flight path of the balloon visit http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/ice0809.htm.
For more information on the NASA Balloon Program visit http://sites.wff.nasa.gov/code820/.