Helium balloons are much more than notorious party accessories, as evidenced by this piece of news: NASA is celebrating a new flight record for its Super Pressure Balloon (SPB) after the helium-filled research balloon touched down safely at the end of a 46-day test flight. The balloon, which had been on one previous test flight, had been launched on May 16 from New Zealand and spent a total of 46 days, 20 hours, and 19 minutes aloft before landing on Saturday, July 2 in Peru. The achievement secured the new world record for a mid-latitude flight of a large scientific research balloon.
NASA’s Balloon Program Office—yes, you read that correctly—is thrilled with the success of the SPB’s second test flight. Unlike most helium balloons at birthday parties, the SPB didn’t simply drift back down to Earth on its own, though. NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas sent flight termination commands at 3:14 p.m. EDT, July 2, ordering the 18.8-million-cubic-foot balloon to separate from its payload and deflate rapidly. The payload then floated safely to the ground in a mountainous area about 20 miles north of Camana, Peru. Official in Peru agreed to help prior to the landing, and coordinated the recovery of the payload and balloon, which are now in progress.
The SPB test flight marked a series of “first ever” events in addition to its flight duration record. This flight was the first time SPD carried a science payload—the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI)—during a mid-latitude flight. The balloon is also the first to complete a mid-latitude circumnavigation, doing so in just 14 days, 13 hours, and 42 minutes.
“We’re extremely pleased with the flight time we achieved with this mission, far and away the longest mid-latitude flight of a NASA heavy-lift balloon to date,” said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA’s Balloon Program Office chief. “We’ll continue to strive for even longer duration flight, 100 days or more, and what we learn from this year’s mission will help take us there.”
Images via NASA