Keen to develop powerful yet cost-effective technology for exploring the dark depths of the universe, NASA has been working on the creation of a Super Pressure Balloon (SPB) capable of carrying and operating scientific equipment while staying aloft for weeks on end.
In recent days, its gargantuan balloon set a new flight record for a mid-latitude scientific research balloon of 46 days, 2o hours and 19 minutes, well short of its 100-day goal but still impressive.
The 18.8-million-cubic-foot balloon, together with its payload, was brought down in a mountainous area about 20 miles north of Camana, Peru. NASA decided to bring the mission — the balloon’s second — to an early close after operators started noticing dramatic altitude variations, apparently caused by storms and extreme fluctuations in air temperature that may have affected the balloon’s helium levels.
The SPB is designed to float at around 110,000 feet. However, during its latest mission it occasionally dropped to 80,000 feet, and on one occasion fell to 70,000 feet when flying over a severe storm.
Project leader Debbie Fairbrother noted that as balloons are thermal vehicles, altitude variance has to be expected during periods of extreme cooling and heating. But the magnitude of the changes during this latest mission led NASA to cut it short.