The Reusable Balloon-Based Telescope

Could a new balloon-based observatory bring about an explosion in astronomical and cosmological research?

NASA, telescope, balloon, astronomy, Astronomers may have a new method for observing the Universe’s vast history thanks to a telescope design that blends the best of ground and space-based telescopes.

For the past 400 years scientists and hobbyists alike have used telescopes to peer into space in search of our universe’s history. While optical telescopes have led to incredible discoveries, they’ve had a few major flaws. When it comes to optical telescopes there are two varieties, ground and space-based. For ground-based telescopes atmospheric variations, climate and light pollution all dim their terrestrial views. To escape these influences and further our search into the Universe’s past researchers launched telescopes into space. Though space-based telescopes give researchers a clear view through billions of years of cosmological evolution they come at a hefty price. In fact, NASA proposed that the James Webb Space Telescope will cost approximately $8.7B over the course of its lifetime.

In an effort to blend the best attributes of both telescope technologies, NASA researchers have started to use balloon-lifted telescopes to gain observational clarity at a much more affordable price.

Called the Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS), NASA’s new observatory design is 6.7m (22ft) tall, 2.4M (8ft) wide and weighs about as much as an SUV. Designed to ferry a 0.8m (2.6ft) telescope to an altitude of approximately 36,576m (120,000ft) the BOPPS platform can bring advanced optics to an altitude nearly untouched by natural and artificial pollutions. Once anchored at its working altitude BOPPS can hover for about 24hours before returning its payload to Earth.

While NASA is still working on developing the BOPPS technology, this past Thursday the Agency conducted its first test flight with promising results. With another flight scheduled to coincide with a pair of asteroids swooping past Mars the BOPPS system may have a golden opportunity to prove its observational value.

If NASA’s engineers and scientists find BOPPS to be a worthwhile investment the new observational technique will be used to study the microenvironments that accompany comets and asteroids.

Image Courtesy of NASA