The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is gearing up to send a 2.5 meter (8.4 foot) telescope into the stratosphere aboard a balloon of the size of a football stadium. The Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter wavelengths (ASTHROS) is scheduled to be launched in December 2023 from Antarctica.

The telescope will be placed in the outer atmosphere to observe light wavelengths that are “blocked” by Earth’s atmosphere, according to an article by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which will be managing the mission. ASTHROS will be able to observe light with wavelengths that are “much longer” than what we humans can see.

The balloon will be stationed at a height of 1,30,000 feet (~40 kilometres), which is “roughly four times higher than commercial airliners fly”, to study the far-infrared light that is not visible to the human eye. The altitude is still very low to the boundary of space.

 NASA plans to send telescope into the stratosphere on a stadium-sized balloon to study the cosmos

Illustration of a high-altitude balloon ascending into the upper atmosphere. Image: NASA

The main payloads in the balloon are going to be a telescope, science instruments, and certain subsystems like cooling and electronic systems. By early August 2020, JPL engineers will begin integration and testing of subsystems. It was only recently that the team completed the design for the telescope’s payload.

“Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at modest cost,” said JPL engineer Jose Siles, who is also the project manager for ASTHROS.

He added that this ambitious mission is aiming to successfully conduct observations in astrophysics that have never been attempted before.

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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.

The mission will measure the motion and speed of gas around newly formed stars, with four major targets already planned to begin with. ASTHROS will observe two regions in the Milky Way where stars are born. The telescope will also map the presence of two kinds of nitrogen ions that reveal the places where “winds” from supernova explosions have reshaped the clouds of gas and dust in these active, energetic star-forming regions of the galaxy.

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