A giant balloon is set to float above Antarctica in 2023, but it won’t be carrying an intrepid explorer. NASA is planning to send a football field-sized balloon equipped with a state-of-the-art telescope into Earth’s stratosphere to learn more about the formation of stars and planets. The ASTHROS (short for Astrophysics Stratospheric Telescope for High Spectral Resolution Observations at Submillimeter-wavelengths) mission will leave from Antarctica in December 2023 and loop the South Pole from the stratosphere for three weeks.
When inflated, the balloon will be 400 feet wide, and carry a gondola with scientific instruments, such as a far-infrared telescope. The balloon will remain well below the edge of space, hovering at an altitude of 130,000 feet (24.6 miles into the sky, or four times higher than a commercial airplane), but it will provide valuable insights to scientists on the ground, who will be controlling the telescope and downloading data for analysis.
The purpose of the mission is to study how stars and planets form and get a better idea of the evolution of our galaxy.
Jose Siles, the ASTHROS project manager, said, “We will launch ASTHROS to the edge of space from the most remote and harsh part of our planet. If you stop to think about it, it’s really challenging, which makes it so exciting at the same time.”
After two or three loops around the South Pole in the span of three to four weeks, the balloon will be set loose while the gondola and its instruments return to Earth via parachute.