updated 8/24/2004 8:09:30 PM ET 2004-08-25T00:09:30

NASA will begin launching massive scientific helium balloons from a northern Swedish facility starting next year, a spokesman for the Esrange launch pad said Tuesday.

"We are enormously satisfied that NASA has chosen Esrange as a base for their long haul flights with large scientific balloons," Olle Norberg, head of the Esrange facility, told The Associated Press.

NASA plans to launch balloons for westward flights, from Esrange to Alaska.

The giant helium-filled balloons have a volume of up to 1.3 million cubic yards.

To launch them, the Swedish Space Corp., which owns Esrange, has signed a $1.32 million contract with the Swedish construction company NCC to double the size of the present launch pad to 2,640 by 1,650 feet.

Construction will be finished before June 2005, when NASA plans to launch balloons for the westward flights, Norberg said.

The big balloons are used to lift heavy payloads — astronomical telescopes and other heavy equipment for astrophysical experiments and research into cosmic radiation — to an altitude of about 25 miles.

From Esrange, NASA's balloons will be able to remain aloft for longer periods than from other launch sites, because of prevailing winds in the northern region and because the balloons' trajectory on their way to Alaska would not cross Russia, which has not granted permission for the balloons to pass through its air space.

"Up to now, NASA has been able to fly such experiments for just a day or two, but now it will be possible to keep them aloft for a week," Norberg said. "Scientists around the world need to be able to fly payloads over long distances, and our concept with flights from Esrange to the northern parts of North America will be quite unique."

NASA officials could not be reached for comment.

Since flights started in 1974, about 450 scientific balloons have been launched from Esrange, which is situated near Kiruna, 765 miles north of the capital, Stockholm.

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