A NASA mission to float a giant scientific balloon around the world this summer has been scrubbed due to COVID-19 Pandemic concerns. NASA had planned to conduct another technology demonstration test of its football-stadium-sized super pressure balloon (SPB) from New Zealand which would have brought a scientific payload high into the sky.
In a statement released to the media, NASA said they “recognizes the uncertainty of the current situation with COVID-19 and that one of the best means for being protective of its workforce is to practice social distancing. NASA had already limited all international travel to only that which is mission critical. NASA also recognizes and respects the important measures the New Zealand government is implementing to protect its citizens. Taken on the whole, NASA has decided to cancel the campaign.
The SPB is an 18.8-million-cubic-foot pressurized flight vehicle designed to float at a constant density altitude despite the heating and cooling of the day-night cycle. This pressurization, coupled with the stratospheric conditions in the southern hemisphere, enables long-duration flights. The balloon is helium-filled and about the size of the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin when fully inflated at its operational float altitude of 110,000 feet. NASA uses the Wanaka, New Zealand location as its dedicated launch site for mid-latitude, long-duration balloon missions.
If the mission were to proceed, learnings captured in it would inform scientists of how to conduct experiments without the need for a more complex, more costly rocket launch. “This year’s mission is critical to validating and certifying the super pressure balloon as an operational flight vehicle,” said Debbie Fairbrother, chief of NASA’s Balloon Program Office. “For certain types of science, we can achieve the same results on a balloon that could only otherwise be achieved by flying into space on a rocket. Certifying the balloon as a long-duration flight vehicle is key to supporting bigger and more complex science missions in the future.”
NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia manages the agency’s scientific balloon flight program with 10 to 15 flights each year from launch sites worldwide. Northrop Grumman, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Texas, provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations for NASA’s scientific balloon program.
Prior to the decision to end this year’s missions, about half of the NASA team working this year’s campaign had already arrived in New Zealand. Once an orderly shutdown of the campaign operations is complete, all team members will return to the United States. In the meantime, NASA will assess the potential effects of this cancelation on future planned missions and will take action accordingly to minimize any impacts.