NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab/Michael Lentz
NASA is blasting a balloon the size of a football stadium to the edge of space. The balloon will hoist a brand new infrared telescope designed to map dust and gases around baby stars.
According to the agency, the Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths (ASTHROS) mission, which will be run out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is scheduled to launch in 2023 from Antarctica.
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"We will launch ASTHROS to the edge of space from the most remote and harsh part of our planet," JPL engineer and ASTHROS project manager Jose Siles said in a statement. "If you stop to think about it, it's really challenging, which makes it so exciting at the same time."
The ASTHROS telescope will snap pictures of the universe from an altitude of 130,000 feet above Earth's surface. From these heights, the telescope can make observations about the stars without atmospheric interference, which blocks some wavelengths of light.
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The telescope will attempt to measure how dust and gases behave around newly formed stars. Specifically, it will measure the motion, speed, and density of this dust and gas, according to the statement. Messier 83 and the proto-planetary disk around the star TQ Hydrae will be two of the prime targets for the new telescope.
Critically, scientists hope to study a violent phenomenon called stellar feedback. These jets of material are a key component in star formation, yet little is known about the effect they have on their surroundings. In a first for NASA, the telescope is designed to map nitrogen ions, which illuminate how these supernova-propelled stellar winds shape star nurseries.
In order to do all this, the telescope has to be chilled to extreme temperatureswe're talking absolute zero, or minus 451.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead of ferrying reserves of the super-chilled liquid helium commonly used on other missions, NASA has installed a solar-powered cryocooler that will help keep all the sensors cold and operational during the mission.
Eventually, after about a month of operation and a few loops around the South Pole, engineers will ping the gondola carrying the telescope and command it to disconnect from the 400-foot balloon. But that's not the end of the line for the ASTHROS telescope. NASA says it will refurbish the instrument for future use.
"Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at modest cost," Siles said. "With ASTHROS, we're aiming to do astrophysics observations that have never been attempted before."
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