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Cosmic! Why an airport closed on Anzac Day

April 27, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

A New Zealand airport closed in the morning of Anzac Day for a very special and unusual reason related to cosmic rays, NASA and an enduring mystery.

NASA, the US space administration, successfully launched its heavy-lift super pressure balloon (SPB) from Wanaka, New Zealand, on Anzac Day morning.

The football-stadium-sized balloon has set off on a mission to detect ultra-high energy cosmic rays. The balloon is designed to stay aloft for 100 or more days,  floating at 33.5 kilometres around the globe in the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitude band.

“Following our 2015 and 2016 New Zealand missions, we’ve learned key lessons on the balloon design that have gone into perfecting the technology for this year’s flight,” Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program office chief said.

“I’m very proud of the team that delivered us to this point and I’m hopeful that third time’s the charm for realizing 100 days of flight.”

While validating the super pressure balloon technology is the main flight objective, the International Extreme Universe Space Observatory on a Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB) payload is flying as a mission of opportunity. Also flying on the payload is a poppy in commemoration of Anzac Day.

Balloon prepares for lift-off. NASA:Bill Rodman

EUSO-SPB’s objective is to detect ultra-high energy cosmic rays from beyond our galaxy as they penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. As these high-energy particles enter the atmosphere, they interact with nitrogen molecules in the air and create a UV fluorescence light.

From its high-altitude vantage point, EUSO-SPB will look downward observing a broad swathe of the Earth’s atmosphere to detect the UV fluorescence from these deep space cosmic rays coming in from above.

“EUSO-SPB is now searching for the most energetic cosmic particles ever observed,” said Angela V. Olinto, professor at the University of Chicago and principal investigator of the project.

“The origin of these particles is a great mystery that our pioneering mission will help to solve. Do they come from massive black holes at the centre of galaxies? Tiny, fast-spinning pulsars? Or somewhere else?”

“The international science team is very excited to see our cosmic ray fluorescence detector lifted to suborbital space by this remarkable balloon and departing on this global journey,” Lawrence Wiencke, professor at the Colorado School of Mines and deputy principal investigator, commented.

“This balloon will give us a great view, and we are hoping for a record flight. We would especially like to thank the NASA and Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility teams for their patience, hard work, and extensive expertise that made this launch successful.”

At a relatively low cost, NASA’s heavy-lift balloons have been critical launch vehicles for testing and validating new technologies and science instruments to assure mission success for costlier, higher-risk follow-on spaceflight missions, Fairbrother said. Once the technology is validated, the ultimate goal of the EUSO project is to fly from an even higher altitude on the International Space Station to observe a greater atmospheric area for detecting high-energy cosmic rays.

The 532,000-cubic-metre Super Pressure Balloon lifted off from NASA’s new launch pad adjacent to Wanaka Airport carrying a suspended payload of 2.5 tonnes. The new pad along with a recently established 10-year lease with Queenstown Airport Corporation are key developments for enhancing NASA’s mid-latitude, long-duration balloon flight operations in New Zealand. According to Fairbrother, future investments include a payload processing facility on-site.

You can track the progress of the flight, which includes a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at:

Edited by Peter Needham

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