NASA has begun a new mission that will see an 8.4-foot (2.56-meter) telescope sent high into the stratosphere on a balloon. The agency is aiming for a December 2023 launch from Antarctica.
The balloon is called ASTHROS (short for Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths) and it will spend about three weeks being pushed around by air currents. You might ask why?
It is going to observe far-infrared light, or light with wavelengths much longer than what is visible to the human eye. To achieve that, ASTHROS will need to reach an altitude of about 130,000 feet (24.6 miles, or 40 kilometers).
If balloons remind you of old times and antiquated technologies, you should not be so quick to dismiss them. Balloons offer NASA many advantages over ground- or space-based missions.
In fact, NASA's Scientific Balloon Program has been around for 30 years and it is quite active, launching 10 to 15 missions a year. This is because balloon missions have lower costs and shorter times between planning and deployment.
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. You can think of balloon missions as a first step that sets the stage for future missions to reap the benefits of new technologies.
"Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at a modest cost," said JPL engineer Jose Siles, project manager for ASTHROS.
Siles added: "With ASTHROS, we're aiming to do astrophysics observations that have never been attempted before."
So what will the technologies carried by ASTHROS be doing? They will measure the motion and speed of gas around newly-formed stars. The mission will also map the presence of two specific types of nitrogen ions for the first time ever. These ions are key indicators of places where winds from massive stars and supernova explosions have reshaped the gas clouds.