Sending an observatory into space is usually controlled by a rocket. You crawl the spacecraft into a payload bay, fire it into space, and then deploy it in orbit around the Earth. For NASA’s ASTHROS Observatory, the space agency has come up with a completely different strategy to push its hardware to the edge of space: a very, very large balloon.
ASTHROS – which is short for astrophysics stratospheric telescopes for high spectral resolution observations at submillimeter wavelengths – includes some high-tech equipment for observation of space, but first, it must break free from most of Earth’s atmosphere. To do this, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is designing a balloon that is 400 feet wide, roughly the size of a football stadium.
The mega-balloon will take the ASTHROS to a height of about 25 miles. As NASA points out, it is right in a sweet spot between the upper boundary of the commercial plane and the edge of space:
ASTHROS inspects light with infrared light, or wavelength that is visible to the human eye. To do this, ASTHROS would need to reach a height of about 130,000 feet (24.6 mi) – about four times more than commercial airliners. Although still below the boundary of space (about 62 miles above the Earth’s surface), it would be sufficient to observe the light wavelengths blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.
The mission will see the balloon move to the observatory around the South Pole where it can peer into space, using its far-infrared devices to capture light and make new observations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believes the balloon will be capable of soaring hardware for 28 days, allowing it to circle the South Pole for up to three times.
“I think it is understood that the stellar reaction is the main regulator of star formation in the history of the universe,” said Jorge Pineda, head investigator for ASTHROS at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Computer simulations of galaxy evolution still cannot replicate the reality that we see in the universe. The nitrogen mapping we will do with ASTHROS has never been done before, and it will be exciting to see how this information helps make those models more accurate. “
Once the mission is over, the team will detach the balloon from the ball while holding the ASTHROS hardware from afar. When the gondola falls apart, a parachute will be activated that will provide sensitive hardware with a relatively soft landing. Scientists will then recover the machine and require any repairs or changes before sending it back to the sky again.