The National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has its hands full: while gearing up for the historic launch of rover Perseverance towards Mars tomorrow, the agency has announced its intention to send off an enormous balloon the size of a football field into Earth's stratosphere to learn about the stars, the planets, the way our galaxy formed and more in 2023. Yes, we're excited.
To be specific, the 400-feet-wide balloon will be equipped with a far-infrared telescope and a gondola filled with scientific instruments—all materials that will allow it to record the kind of data scientists are looking for. Once the mission is complete, all the instruments will be parachuted back to Earth and the balloon will be set free.
The operation is dubbed Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths (ASTHROS) and is scheduled to leave from Antarctica in December 2023 and loop around the South Pole for three full weeks.
"Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at modest cost," says JPL engineer Jose Siles, project manager for ASTHROS, in an official press release announcing the mission. "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."
In case you thought you'd be ale to look up and catch a glimpse of the giant thing, think again: the balloon will hover right below the edge of space, at about 130,000 feet in altitude. To put things in perspective, that's four times higher than your average commercial plane.
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