Huge Helium Balloon Sets High-Flying Record

A robotic balloon with a science mission recently set records for distance and duration in a 41-day flight above the Antarctic.

The NASA-operated balloon flew circles around the South Pole while gathering data on cosmic rays, high-energy particles that travel at nearly light-speed and slam into Earth's upper atmosphere.

Artist rendering of the Ultra-Long Duration Balloon, expected to fly for 100 days. Credit: NASA

Team members are aiming for eventual flights that could last 100 days with a next-generation, pumpkin-shaped balloon called the Ultra-Long Duration Balloon.

The helium-filled balloon was launched from the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station in Antarctica on Dec. 16. It traveled 41 days, 22 hours, landing on Jan. 27. The previous record for a pilotless balloon flight was 31 days, 20 hours, also an Antarctic effort, in 2001.

The balloon is made of thin polyethylene material, about the same thickness as Saran Wrap. It soared to 23.7 miles (38,100 meters).

To pack the weight of the 4,000-pound detection facility, a huge balloon was needed. It is bigger than a football field -- more than 450 feet (137 meters) wide.

Officials said the test went well and longer flights with more robust science experiments will be planned.