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NASA confirms launch pad at NZ airport

February 14, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

NASA, the government agency responsible for the US civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research, has confirmed it will use a New Zealand airport as one of its global launch bases for the next 10 years. 

The launches will not be rockets, however, but super pressure balloons. The next launch, planned for late March or early April, will see a 532,000 cubic-metre super  pressure balloon ascend to an altitude of 110,000 feet (33.5 kilometres above the earth) where the stratospheric winds will propel it on a high speed journey around the southern hemisphere.

The balloon will carry “a high-energy cosmic ray particle astrophysics payload that will test a fluorescence detector and its supporting technologies under the severe operating conditions of the stratosphere”, according to NASA.

NASA is a key part of the Wanaka community, spending time with schools and groups during their visits

Wanaka Airport Operations Manager Ralph Fegan welcomed the news.

“We’re delighted that NASA has confirmed a 10-year arrangement to continue launches in Wanaka,” Fegan said. “They’re now familiar faces in our community and it’s great to have them back.”

Queenstown Airport, which manages Wanaka Airport on behalf of owner Queenstown Lakes District Council, has worked closely with NASA to secure the deal.

The agreement has paved the way for NASA to invest in a longer term base of operations. It plans to move to land on the north-east side of Wanaka Airport and create a dedicated balloon launch pad.

Queenstown Airport Chief Executive Colin Keel believes the new arrangement is testimony to the confidence NASA has in Wanaka.

In 2017 a 600 metre diameter gravel launch pad will be constructed especially for the launch

“The opportunity for Wanaka to host NASA’s launches successfully in 2015 and 2016 was a real privilege and we’re thrilled that it’s culminated in the team making a long term commitment to invest in the region. The new agreement ensures that NASA will continue to play a significant part in the future of Wanaka’s economy and its vision of bringing benefits to the district by attracting economic investment and innovative businesses.”

In 2015 alone, the project brought significant economic benefits to both Wanaka and New Zealand injecting at least USD 1.25 million directly into the regional and national economies.

More than 60 NASA operations specialists, senior managers and scientists have made Wanaka their temporary home over the last two years, with another 35-strong team expected for this year’s launch.

Members of NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) team will begin arriving in Wanaka in February along with scientists from the University of Chicago’s Extreme Universe Space Observatory.

Last May’s launch saw the balloon airborne for 46 days


“The team brings a little bit of America to Wanaka for a few months of the year and we’ve built solid friendships with them,” Fegan said.

“Every year they’ve immersed themselves fully into Wanaka life, visiting schools and other local groups to educate and inform the community.  We’re incredibly lucky to have such a wealth of knowledge and experience benefit our town and we’re grateful to the NASA team and scientists for giving their time to support local groups.”

Edited by Peter Needham in Ngauranga, New Zealand

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