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NASA continues NMSU's contract for scientific balloon program

New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory, which launches high-altitude scientific balloons from sites all over the world, has reached a milestone as manager of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's balloon program.

A high-altitude scientific balloon is prepared for launch from McMurdo Station in Antarctica. This experiment, launched in December, collected data that will help answer questions about the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and clusters. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility)

NASA recently exercised the first of two three-year options on the university's contract to provide flight and engineering support for the agency's balloon program and to operate the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facilities (CSBF) at Palestine, Texas, and Fort Sumner, N.M.

"We are pleased and proud of our successful record with the balloon program," said Stephen Hottman, PSL's deputy director and associate dean for research and development. "These next three years will put us over 20 years with this customer."

The customer is the Wallops Flight Facility, a part of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Balloons offer a lower-cost, quick-response alternative to satellites for scientific investigations that need to be conducted in a space environment, Hottman said. They can be launched from a variety of locations and can be ready for flight in as little as six months. While a satellite mission can cost about $100 million, a typical balloon mission is $1 million or less.

Scientific balloons can carry payloads weighing several thousand pounds to altitudes of about 30 miles - above 99.5 percent of the earth's atmosphere. More than 2,400 scientific balloon flights have been conducted by the CSBF from its Texas and New Mexico facilities and from sites around the globe.

Antarctica is a favored site for long-duration balloon flights, because the sun never sets there when it's summer in the southern hemisphere. That eliminates the nightly loss of altitude that occurs in zero-pressure helium-filled balloons, caused by contraction of the gas when the sun goes down.

"Our guys go down in late October for the long-duration flight campaign and come back in late January," said Danny Ball, CSBF site manager.

The most recent campaign included a flight that stayed aloft for 35 days, circumnavigating the South Pole and the continent of Antarctica two and a half times, Ball said. It carried an innovative high-energy neutrino detector dubbed ANITA (Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna).

The record for duration was a flight launched in December 2004 that stayed up for 42 days and made three orbits of the South Pole.

A major initiative of the balloon program is the development of an ultra-long-duration balloon (ULDB) that can stay aloft for 100 days or more. This new super-pressure, pumpkin-shaped balloon is presenting some design challenges, but Ball said a recent test flight of a scale model has engineers confident they are on the right track.

The scale model, roughly 100 feet in diameter, was launched inside a huge World War II blimp hangar in Elizabeth City, N.C. The same thing happened to the scale model as happened previously to a full-size version launched from Sweden - it failed to deploy properly into its fully inflated shape. But the test was considered a success, Ball said, "because now we know we can design a very high-fidelity scale model of the balloon that mimics the behavior of the full-size balloon exactly."

"This is not only cheaper to do, but it gives the design guys the opportunity to stand right next to it as it inflates," he said. "We'll build another scale model within the next few months and we expect to have another flight balloon within about a year. We are very confident now that we can solve this design challenge."

NMSU first won the NASA scientific balloon contract in 1987 and has successfully defended it four times in competitive bid processes. The current 10-year contract - a four-year base period that just concluded, plus two options for three-year extensions - has a total potential value of about $238.7 million.

The three-year option just exercised by NASA is effective through March 31, 2010.