As NASA successfully launched its super-pressure scientific balloon into near space from Wanaka aerodrome today, a New Zealand aviation leader made the operation possible through precision airspace control and coordination.
Airways New Zealand, the air navigation service provider which controls and manages 30 million square kilometres of airspace across New Zealand and the Pacific, worked alongside NASA behind the scenes planning the airspace logistics for the launch of the 2.3 tonne helium-filled balloon.
Chief Operating Officer Pauline Lamb says Airways coordinated with NASA to determine an optimal launch time which would have minimal impact on normal scheduled aircraft operations. The organisation played a key role to facilitate the safe passage of the balloon through controlled airspace.
"Near space launch services is an emerging market globally and we see significant opportunities in New Zealand for organisations who want to explore such technology. At Airways we've combined our existing air traffic management and safety expertise with an enabling approach for these new types of customers," Ms Lamb says.
"Our first priority is ensuring the safety of our skies, so we’re thrilled to be at the forefront of this ground-breaking research and development project where NASA will be operating at near space altitudes," Ms Lamb says.
On launch day Airways was in contact with NASA at key decision points, and Airways' balloon launch coordinator gave the go-ahead to launch through New Zealand's controlled airspace. In the time leading up to launch, NASA provided Airways with the balloon's predicted trajectory based on wind and weather conditions, ensuring Airways had the most up-to-date information to safely manage the airspace.
NASA's Balloon Program Office Chief Debora Fairbrother says NASA chose Wanaka, New Zealand, for its balloon launch based on a safety and infrastructure survey of the southern hemisphere. New Zealand's relatively uncongested airspace, enabling approach to new aviation developments and technologies, and Airways' ability to be nimble and responsive to their specific launch requirements facilitated the planning efforts.
"Safety is the first priority for any NASA balloon launch, and working alongside Airways, the CAA and Queenstown and Wanaka airports, we were reassured that the safety of the travelling public and those on the ground was paramount," Ms Fairbrother says. "New Zealand is also a beautiful place for a launch, with great infrastructure."
Airways proactively supports the use of cutting-edge aviation technologies in its controlled airspace, says Ms Lamb. "Evidence of this is our collaborative efforts to facilitate the rapid growth of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry. We've created a team of experts in this area, and we're educating and connecting UAV enthusiasts and commercial operators via the website airshare.co.nz," she adds.
Airways will continue to work alongside NASA to facilitate any future balloon launches through New Zealand airspace.