Astronomers who study the material between the stars are ready to “go for the gusto.” They’re planning to launch a telescope aboard a giant balloon. If everything goes as planned, it’ll loop around Antarctica for up to four months, staring deep into the Milky Way and a companion galaxy.
The mission is known as GUSTO. It’ll monitor the sky at far-infrared wavelengths. Water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere absorbs those wavelengths, so the only way to study them is to climb above the atmosphere.
GUSTO will do so with a super-pressure balloon. After launch from McMurdo Station, it’ll climb to about 120,000 feet. It’ll circle around the continent, eventually drifting over the Southern Ocean. Scientists will track it with satellites.
The mission’s goal is to study the ISM — the interstellar medium — the wisps of gas and dust between the stars. Studying this material can help scientists trace the lifecycle of the stars. Stars are born from giant clouds of gas and dust. As they age, they spew out winds of particles that add to the ISM. And when they die, they expel most of their gas back into space, where the cycle starts all over again.
The big challenge for GUSTO may be the weather. The balloon can’t be launched in high winds. A precursor mission in 2012 couldn’t launch until its eighth try. And a second test, the following year, couldn’t get off at all. So GUSTO will need calm winds to soar into the Antarctic sky.
Script by Damond Benningfield