The ASTHROS mission will be carried on a big balloon that will be about 150 meters wide and will be inflated with helium.
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. The mission named Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths, or ASTHROS in short, will tentatively be launched by December 2023 from Antarctica. It will spend three weeks in the air, observing and collecting crucial data.
ASTHROS will observe far-infrared light, which is light with wavelengths much longer than what is visible to the naked eye, and to do that the balloon will reach heights of about 40 kilometers — altitudes that are roughly four times higher than what commercial airliners fly. Though the mission will still be well under the boundary of space (100 kilometers above Earth’s surface), the altitude will be high enough for it to observe light wavelengths that are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.
The mission will carry instruments that can measure speed and the motion of gas around newly-formed stars. It will attempt to study four main targets — that will include two star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy, NASA said in the release. In a first, it will also map and detect the presence of two specific types of nitrogen ions.
The mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Talking about the mission, JPL engineer Jose Siles, a project manager for ASTHROS, says that though the balloon missions are at a higher-risk than space missions, they still yield high-rewards at lower costs. He added that with the ASTHROS, scientists are aiming to accomplish some never-before astrophysics observations.
The ASTHROS mission will be carried on a big balloon that will be about 150 meters wide — or roughly the size of a football stadium — and will be inflated with helium. A carrier below the balloon will hold the instruments and the telescope. During its flight, it will allow scientists to control the direction of the telescope with precision and download the data in real-time using satellite links.
The ASTHROS team expects that stratospheric winds will help the balloon complete two to three loops around the South Pole in approximately 21 to 28 days. Once complete, the parachute will return the carrier to the ground and the telescope will be recovered and refurbished for future missions.