NASA is launching a telescope and a balloon the size of a football stadium into the stratosphere so researchers can study the formation of stars.
The telescope, named ASTHROS, measures at 8.4 feet and the balloon carrying the device is 400 feet wide. ASTHROS observes far-infrared light – light with wavelengths invisible to the human eye – that is blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.
It will float at around 130,000 feet, per a release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is leading the project, in order to reach past the atmosphere. Once it is in the stratosphere, it will monitor four key targets: two star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy, the galaxy Messier 83, and a young star named TW Hydrae.
The telescope, according to NASA, will make 3D maps of the density, speed and motion of gas in these regions to study a phenomenon known as stellar feedback — which, according to NASA's JPL scientist Jorge Pineda, is “the main regulator of star formation throughout the universe’s history.”
"Balloon missions like ASTHROS are higher-risk than space missions but yield high-rewards at modest cost," said JPL engineer Jose Siles, project manager for ASTHROS, in a statement.
The risks, per JPL, include unforeseen technical challenges due to the nature of sending a balloon into space – which may affect the mission's results. NASA sends 10 to 15 balloons every year, but none ever carrying a telescope this size.
"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."
It is set to launch at the end of 2023 and will complete two or three loops around the South Pole in three or four weeks, traveling by stratospheric winds.