Super pressure balloon
Raven Aerostar
Sioux Falls, SD

A super pressure balloon (SPB) designed by Raven Aerostar, and the largest SPB ever built, surpassed 31 days amid the stratosphere’s harsh elements as part of a NASA mission, demonstrating the scientific balloon’s extended flight duration and ability to maintain constant altitudes. The balloon carried a two-and-a-half-ton NASA payload.

Raven Aerostar personnel provided balloon preparations, integration, and flight operations support to Orbital ATK, the prime contractor of NASA’s balloon program. The SPB lifted to the stratosphere at a rate of ~1,000 feet per minute, and successfully entered float within 99% accuracy of its targeted altitude.

The SPB exceeds 18 million cubic feet in volume (the size of a sports stadium), and is designed to maintain a constant float altitude at 110,000 feet, conserving helium and increasing flight endurance. These improvements provide better altitude stability for science instruments requiring more accuracy, creating new opportunities for scientific research on balloons. SPB’s also provide an opportunity to test groundbreaking instruments before they’re considered for free-flying spacecraft.

While long duration was an important objective for this mission, engineers were more keenly focused on the challenge of maintaining a constant altitude during the flight. Most standard, heavy-lift, zero-pressure balloons can vary in altitudes as great as 45,000 feet due to the alternating warming and cooling of the day and night cycle. In response, flight operators typically release excess weight in the form of ballast to maintain altitude. The SPB, however, is designed to maintain a positive internal pressure in relationship to its environment, which keeps the balloon at a constant float altitude. In much the same way a car tire maintains its pressure despite changes in the environment around it, so does the SPB.

The science and engineering communities have previously identified long-duration balloon flights at stable altitudes as playing an important role in providing inexpensive access to the near-space environment for science and technology.

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