One of NASA’s next missions to study the origins of stars will feature a record-breaking telescope hoisted by a football stadium-sized balloon and the space agency is relying on an East Texas facility to make sure it gets off the ground.
The Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths, or ASTHROS, is slated to be launched from Antarctica in December 2023. The radio telescope, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is designed to make the first 3D maps of the gas around newborn stars.
Project manager Jose Siles says this understanding of the cosmos will be valuable in understanding the origins of life on Earth.
“Every atom in our bodies comes from a star. It was formed in a star millions of years ago.”
The engineer says the heart of the ASTHROS mission is at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in East Texas. NASA’s team in Palestine is responsible for assembling the technology, then managing the launch, flight, and recovery.
“We build this four years, test it in Palestine, put it in boxes, and then we have to put it back together in Antarctica in just three weeks. It’s just incredible,” Siles said.
At 20 feet tall, the telescope will also feature the largest antenna ever flown on the balloon, according to Siles. The payload will weigh as much as two cars.
A 400-feet wide helium balloon will carry a gondola containing the equipment high in the stratosphere to the edge of space, an altitude of about 130,000 feet.
Here, the telescope will spend about three weeks drifting above Antarctica, observing light wavelengths blocked by water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere.
“When it’s flying, it just stays over the continent. It doesn’t drift off, it doesn’t go into the water. And then we can just terminate the mission. The mission is connected to a parachute, land it back, and go and recover it.”
Siles says the ASTHROS mission will also have a role in testing technologies that will pave the way for future space missions.
The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility team will travel to Antarctica to launch the balloon, manage its flight from its mission control center in Palestine, and retrieve the payload at the conclusion of the mission.
Since 1973, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility has launched more than 1,700 balloons for dozens of universities, research agencies, and foreign groups.