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NASA plans to send football stadium-sized balloon to the edge of space to study stars, aims for 2023 launch

It will carry an 8.4-foot telescope, allowing astronomers back home to study newly-formed stars
(NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab/Michael Lentz)
(NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab/Michael Lentz)

NASA is working on sending a balloon the size of a football stadium to the edge of space. If everything works according to plan, it will reach an altitude of 130,000 to unravel the mysteries behind star formation. NASA's ASTHROS mission is scheduled for launch in December 2023 from Antarctica. It will carry an 8.4-foot telescope that can see in infrared light, allowing astronomers back home to study newly-formed stars.

"We will launch ASTHROS to the edge of space from the most remote and harsh part of our planet," 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 mission offers a few advantages over its ground-based counterparts such as Large Binocular Telescope Observatory located in southeastern Arizona, or space telescopes such as Hubble. They are low-cost missions and the time from the planning stage to deploying is short, the space agency said.

"Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at modest cost," Siles explained. "With ASTHROS, we're aiming to do astrophysics observations that have never been attempted before. The mission will pave the way for future space missions by testing new technologies and providing training for the next generation of engineers and scientists," he added.

NASA will pump helium, a gas lighter than air, into the balloon. It will be 400m-wide, equivalent to the size of a football stadium. It will carry the special far-infrared telescope. A cooling system will protect the instrument by maintaining the lowest temperature possible or absolute zero.

The Carina Nebula, a star-forming region in the Milky Way galaxy, is among four science targets that scientists plan to observe with the ASTHROS high-altitude balloon mission. (NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley) et al., the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Once it reaches its target of 13,000 feet altitude, the infrared telescope named ASTHROS will capture pictures of its targets. Infrared light helps astronomers detect stars. After completing its mission, the instruments will land on Earth through a parachute. NASA will be able to reuse them for future missions.

Mission targets

The mission main target is studying star formation. It will try to understand stellar feedback. It is observed when a star nears its end and explodes into a supernova, spewing out raw materials such as gas and dust into the outer space. These materials can either drive or block the birth of giants. Without this mechanism, the available matter would have fused into stars long ago, according to NASA.

"I think it's understood that stellar feedback is the main regulator of star formation throughout the universe's history," said Jorge Pineda, principal investigator of ASTHROS. "Computer simulations of galaxy evolution still can't quite replicate the reality that we see out in the cosmos. The nitrogen mapping that we'll do with ASTHROS has never been done before, and it will be exciting to see how that information helps make those models more accurate."

The telescope will study two star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy. It has two other targets: galaxy Messier 83 and a young star named TW Hydrae. The latter is surrounded by gas and dust, which will help new planets form.