Monday, April 24, 2017


Hey, good news! This isn't from the time machine! Even though it's about to sound like it is.

About this time last year, I was sitting on an Air New Zealand flight from ZQN to AKL when the pilot crackled on and said "Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. We're quite proud to be cruising along at an altitude of 37,000 feet right now, but I'm afraid we've been outdone. If you're sitting on the left side of the aircraft, have a look waaaaaay above the wing, and you'll see a little white speck. That's the balloon that NASA launched from Wanaka today, and it's currently at 110,000 feet. The only reason we can see it is that it's the size of a stadium."

I was sitting on the left side, and my iPhone photo does indeed display the balloon at a whopping 1 pixel in width...not too impressive.

Anyhow, they use these balloons, made from polyethylene film (think sandwich bag) for upper atmosphere science experiments. This year's experiment is for high energy cosmic ray particle astrophysics, which you should say 5 times fast.

Last year's balloon stayed aloft for 46 days, and its flight track can be seen here:

Fast forward to today; NASA's been hanging out in Wanaka for the past couple months prepping for another launch and waiting for a weather window. After scrapping 7 launches, they finally had their opportunity today. When I saw that they were greenlighted, I sprinted out the door with my longest lens and tore towards the airport, arriving with about 5 minutes to spare.

It's (relatively) small at launch, but it expands to the size of a football stadium once it's up in the much thinner upper atmosphere, at which point it will be smooth and round instead of droopy and loose.

Canopy just after launch

Payload dangles

The whole thing

Tracking is already available here:

Way to go NASA! Now go drink some beer.


Past Detritus