On June 22nd and 24th the Bay of Plenty joined the ‘space race’ and achieved a New Zealand first when three sub-orbital helium space weather balloons were launched from Tauranga and ascended to the edge of space to gather critical scientific data on earth’s cosmic ray environment.

Three sub-orbital helium balloons were deployed 35km into the stratosphere to explore the near-space environment and gather scientific data to compare with other flights already conducted around the world. The balloons carried payloads focused on three kinds of research; Monitoring cosmic rays in the atmosphere, stress testing microbes and developing a biological radiation sensor.

After the launches in Ohaupo and Kawhia the helium filled weather space balloons ascended to the stratosphere, and collected data before popping and descending via parachute. The entire expedition was recorded by on-board video cameras and GPS tracking devices on the payload which allowed the recovery teams to locate the payload and gathered data after they landed back on earth, in the Western Bay of Plenty region.

A triple balloon launch took place on June 22nd and 24th from launch sites in the Waikato and King Country.

Launch 1 & 2: Friday 22 June
Launch 3: Sunday 24 June

Flight number one was recovered from the wetlands at Kaituna. Flight number two unfortunately landed off Pukehina beach and was lost at sea. Flight number 3 landed and was recovered from bush in a steep gorge between Galatea and Ruatoki. Recovery teams made up of Land Search and rescue, EOL, Earth to Sky Calculus and some local students did an amazing job recovering two out of three payloads.

Balloon Tracking

The picture below shows the altitude reached by the third ballon as well as the section where limitations due to military restrictions prevent the GPS from operating at altitudes higher than 22000 meters. GPS signal was recovered on reentry at about 18000 meters.

The complete trajectory was monitored from the ground by the team at IQnexus who sponsored the launch and provided a Sigfox GPS tracker that allowed the ballon to report its position and other related parameters every two minutes. The launch, ascent and reentry was monitored in real time by the IQnexus Platform using a Sigfox transmitter. The picture below shows the ground trajectory (in yellow) followed by the Ballon as well as the section where the GPS restriction prevented an accurate tracking of the balloon’s location.

Breaking a transmission record

The GPS tracker developed by the team at IQnexus uses the latest technology on Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) to track the location, speed and direction of the device. Similarly, the transmitter uses a newly deployed Low Power Wide Area Network (LpWAN) to send small bursts of information at very long distances with minimum power requirement. In fact, the device was received by a Sigfox antenna about 600Km away at Mount Grey in Canterbury, holding the longest LpWAN transmission in the southern hemisphere. This technology allows the team at IQnexus to develop sensors that can now transmit data for years with only a couple of standard AA batteries.

This balloon flights are part of an international project, where data is collected and combined to give a global picture of what is happening in our stratosphere and how the increase in cosmic radiation may be affecting all our lives right now and in the future. How does the overall increase affect us? Cosmic rays penetrate commercial airlines, dosing passengers and flight crews enough that pilots are classified as occupational radiation workers. Some research suggests that cosmic rays can seed clouds and trigger lightning, potentially altering weather and climate.

The balloons were launched as part of a global Spaceweather.com and Earth to Sky Calculus initiative which involved a number of students from Toi Ohomai, Otumoetai College and Mount Maunganui College.