NASA To Use Stadium-Sized Balloon To Study The Universe

Katie Ramirez
July 28, 2020

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has begun work on a balloon that will carry a 2.5-meter telescope into the stratosphere to observe wavelengths of light that are not visible from the ground, the space agency said in a release. ASTHROS (short for Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-frequencies), will watch frequencies of light not noticeable starting from the earliest stage.

The balloon will be positioned at a height of 1,30,000 feet (~40 kilometers), which is "roughly four times higher than commercial airliners fly", to study the far-infrared light that isn't obvious to the human eye. Fully inflated, the balloon is around 400 feet (150 meters) wide.

The main payloads in the balloon are going to be a telescope, science instruments, and certain subsystems like cooling and electronic systems.

Though balloons may seem "antiquated", NASA notes they offer advantages such as cheaper launch costs.

All this means that they can deal with the higher risks that come along with using new technologies that are yet to fly in space. They are often used to test bleeding-edge tech that hasn't been sent to space, allowing the safe pursuit on high-risk missions.

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"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", Siles added. Willie can be reached by email.

Once lifted into the stratosphere ASTHROS will observe wavelengths that aren't now visible from the ground in an effort to measure the motion and speed of gas around newly-formed stars. ASTHROS will observe two regions in the Milky Way where stars are born. 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".

Through a process called stellar feedback, these violent events can scatter surrounding material and hinder or block star formation. It will make the "first detailed 3D maps of the density, speed, and motion of gas" of two specific types of nitrogen ions. The telescope and scientific instrument will be transported in a gondola beneath the balloon, as depicted in the image above. During flight, scientists will be able to precisely control the direction that the telescope points and download the data in real-time using satellite links.

In a order to cool the instruments, NASA will use a cryocooler, which uses electricity (supplied by ASTHROS' solar panels) to keep the superconducting detectors close to minus 268.5 degrees Celsius. At the end of that time, operators will send a command to separate the balloon from the gondola, which will float back to Earth on a parachute for eventual reuse.

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