The observation of an observatory into space is usually handled by a rocket. You push a spaceship into a payload bay, launch it into space, and then place it in orbit around Earth. As for NASA’s ASTHROS observatory, the space agency has come up with a completely different strategy for getting its hardware to the edge of space: a very large balloon.
ASTHROS – short for astrophysical stratospheric telescope for high-resolution observations at submillimeter wavelengths – contains some state-of-the-art space observation tools, but must first get rid of most of the Earth’s atmosphere. To make that happen, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is designing a 400-foot-balloon, roughly the size of a football stadium.
The megalo-balloon will transfer ASTHROS to an altitude of almost 25 miles. As NASA explains, this is a sweet spot between the upper limit of commercial aircraft and the edge of the space itself:
ASTHROS observes far infrared light or light with wavelengths much longer than is visible to the human eye. To this end, ASTHROS will have to reach an altitude of about 24,000 kilometers, which is about four times higher than commercial aircraft. Although still well below the boundary of space (about 62 miles above the Earth̵7;s surface), it will be high enough to observe the light wavelengths blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.
The mission will see a balloon carrying an observatory around the South Pole, where it can look into space and use its infrared devices to capture light and make new observations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believes the balloon will be able to keep the hardware flying high for up to 28 days, allowing it to encircle the South Pole up to three times.
“I think it’s clear that stellar feedback is a major regulator of star formation throughout the history of the universe,” said Jorge Pineda, chief researcher at ASTHROS at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Computer simulations of galaxy evolution cannot completely replicate the reality we see in the universe. The nitrogen mapping we do with ASTHROS has never been done before, and it will be interesting to see how this information will help improve these models. “
At the end of the mission, the team remotely disconnects the balloon from the gondola that holds the ASTHROS hardware. When the gondola is disconnected, the parachute activates, giving the sensitive hardware a relatively soft landing. The scientists will then restore the machine and make any repairs or changes that are needed before sending it back to the sky.