NASA achieved a significant milestone with the successful completion of a flight test involving a super pressure balloon carrying the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) science mission. The test lasted for approximately 39 days and 14 hours, starting on Sunday, April 16, at 11:42 a.m. local time in New Zealand (7:42 p.m. on April 15 in U.S. Eastern Time) and concluding on Thursday, May 25, at 9:27 a.m. EDT.
The launch took place from Wānaka Airport in New Zealand, which serves as NASA’s primary site for long-duration balloon launches. Throughout the flight, the balloon performed exceptionally well, maintaining a stable float altitude in the stratosphere. This achievement is of great significance as it demonstrates the ability to conduct extended-duration balloon flights under varying day and night conditions, fulfilling an important objective for NASA’s balloon program and the scientific community at large. The success of this flight significantly advances the validation and qualification of balloon technology.
To ensure a safe landing, a suitable landing area in southern Argentina was identified. On May 25 at 8:37 a.m. EDT, NASA’s balloon operators from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, issued flight termination commands. Following the command, the 18.8-million-cubic-foot (532,000-cubic-meter) balloon separated from the payload, rapidly deflating as planned. The payload then descended safely to the ground using a parachute, ultimately touching down in an unpopulated region located 66 nautical miles (122 kilometers) northeast of Gobernador Gregores, Argentina.
Prior to concluding the balloon mission, NASA coordinated closely with Argentine officials to ensure a smooth termination process. Currently, efforts are underway to recover both the payload and the balloon.
Over the course of nearly 40 days, the super pressure balloon accomplished an unprecedented feat by completing five full circuits around the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Throughout the journey, it maintained a stable float altitude of approximately 108,000 feet. As the days progressed, the projected flight path would have taken the balloon further south, where it would have encountered reduced sunlight, posing a potential challenge in maintaining power to the balloon’s systems, which rely on solar panels for charging. Therefore, the decision was made to conclude the flight and recover the balloon and payload as it crossed over land.
Debbie Fairbrother, the chief of NASA’s Balloon Program Office, expressed immense pride in the team’s accomplishment, emphasizing the safe and successful nature of the flight. The scientific data collected by SuperBIT during the mission has been exceptionally valuable and insightful.
Looking ahead, NASA’s Balloon Program is gearing up for its next venture—a science mission scheduled to launch from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in July.