NASA to send a huge balloon into the stratosphere for deep-space research

NASA is planning to attach a telescope to a massive balloon before sending it into the stratosphere for an ambitious science mission.

The cutting-edge telescope designated for the 2023 mission is 8.4 feet (2.6 meters) in length, while the high-altitude balloon set to carry it will be “the size of a football stadium,” NASA said on Thursday, July 23.

ASTHROS high-altitude balloon
NASA

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managing the project, ASTHROS (short for Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths) will spend around three weeks drifting on air currents above the icy southern continent of Antarctica.

Floating at an altitude of around 130,000 feet (24.6 miles) — about four times higher than a commercial passenger jet flies — the telescope will spend its time observing far-infrared light, or light with wavelengths much longer than what’s visible to the human eye.

“Though still well below the boundary of space (about 62 miles above Earth’s surface), it will be high enough to observe light wavelengths blocked by Earth’s atmosphere,” NASA explained on its website.

The team behind the project recently finished work on the telescope (which captures the light), as well as its science instrument, and other elements such as the cooling and electronic systems. Testing will begin next month to ensure that all the components function as expected.

Researchers will use the mission to measure the motion and speed of gas around newly formed stars, examining various locations that include two star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy. In a first, it will also detect and map the existence of two types of nitrogen ions in a process that has the potential to reveal places “where winds from massive stars and supernova explosions have reshaped the gas clouds within these star-forming regions.”

NASA says that “such violent outbursts can, over millions of years, disperse the surrounding material and impede star formation or halt it altogether” in a process known as “stellar feedback.” It adds that stellar feedback can also accelerate star formation as it can cause material to clump together.

Researchers hope to gain a greater understanding of how stellar feedback works and to gain new information that will allow it to refine current computer simulations of galaxy evolution.

“The nitrogen mapping that we’ll do with ASTHROS has never been done before, and it will be exciting to see how that information helps make those models more accurate,” said JPL scientist Jorge Pineda, principal investigator of ASTHROS.

As NASA points out, to achieve its goals, it needs not only cutting-edge scientific equipment, but also one ginormous balloon. Fully inflated, the balloon is around 400 feet (150 meters) wide. The telescope and scientific instrument will be transported in a gondola beneath the balloon, as depicted in the image above.

“Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at modest cost,” said JPL engineer Jose Siles, project manager for ASTHROS. “With ASTHROS, we’re aiming to do astrophysics observations that have never been attempted before. The mission will pave the way for future space missions by testing new technologies and providing training for the next generation of engineers and scientists.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory also worked on the design and development of Perseverance, the rover that’s about to head to Mars.

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