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NASA tests super-high-altitude balloon

Project is designed to allow research at more than 100,000 feet, as much as three times higher than commercial airliners fly.

NASA said Thursday that it has tested a balloon that ultimately will be able to carry one ton of research equipment to more than 100,000 feet.

NASA said Thursday it has performed a test of a prototype super pressure balloon that could carry as much as a ton of research equipment to heights of 110,000 feet or more for up to 100 days.

The balloon, which was launched on December 28, 2008, from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, is 7 million cubic feet and is said to be the largest single-cell, super-pressure, fully sealed balloon ever flown. When the project--which NASA is conducting in coordination with the National Science Foundation--is completed, the space agency should have a 22 million cubic foot balloon to work with.

NASA said that long-duration high-altitude balloon missions are far more cost-effective than satellites and that a chief benefit is that the instruments used can be easily retrieved and re-used.

The test flight made it to an altitude of 111,000 feet and has been at or near that height for 11 days so far.

"The flight tested the durability and functionality of the scientific balloon's unique pumpkin-shaped design and novel material," NASA said in a statement. "The material is a special lightweight polyethylene film, about the thickness of ordinary plastic food wrap."