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  • NASA SpaceX and blue origin are practically synonymous with rockets.

  • Those massive, powerful vehicles allow us to travel beyond Earth.

  • But while the ongoing competition to launch the world's next best rocket tends to dominate news headlines, there's a little known mission and NASA to develop a new kind of space telescope.

  • And this project is using something else entirely.


  • You can do more science in a single balloon flight than you could do from years and years of observing from any of these existing observatory's.

  • You can take technological risks on a balloon that you would never be able to take on a space mission so you can do all kinds of crazy things, like sending massive telescopes that are cool to near absolute zero to the edge of space.

  • These ultra cold balloon telescopes could heighten our understanding of the universe overnight.

  • So not only can you see things that you wouldn't be able to see with these existing observatory's, but you can look for things well beyond our own galaxy and even to the edge of the universe, all the way back to the Big Bang.

  • They're a little bit more complicated than just a simple balloon.

  • We can get 220,000 ft, and we can keep you at that altitude for a day to two days to, you know, the longest week loan is 55 the sheer size of these NASA balloons can be massive.

  • They can reach up to 1.7 million cubic meters in volume, which is equivalent to more than 200 Goodyear blimps.

  • And they can stretch to a diameter of more than 160 m when floating, which is about the size of an entire football stadium.

  • A lot of people have no knowledge that a balloon program even exists, and we can take payloads as big as a small car up to the stratosphere.

  • Four times as high as a plane flies, we fly a lot of astrophysics payloads.

  • We have some Helio physics payloads, and almost every technology that has flown on a space mission has flown first on a balloon.

  • The balloon program tested the supersonic parachute that would later help the Perseverance Rover successfully land on the surface of Mars.

  • So when Mars perseverance was coming in, I got chills when we knew that the parachutes deployed and started slowing down the rover and brought it into the atmosphere because the balloon program, in our own little way, help them to advance the technology so that ultimately they were successful perseverance faithfully on the surface of Mars.

  • It's one of those things that I never knew about growing up and really never had even thought about.

  • But ballooning can open up so many avenues for science.

  • One such avenue is using these balloons as affordable and efficient space viewing Observatory's.

  • The best comparison is that balloon telescope can do 90% of what a space telescope could do for maybe 10% of the cost, and it can do 100,000 times better than a ground based telescope.

  • These floating observatory's can help answer questions we have about our universe that ground telescopes can always do.

  • 99% of all the photons in the universe come from the Big Bang, actually, and over 90% of the light after the big bang emitted by stars is actually at infrared wavelengths.

  • Now, in order to see this, you need to be above the atmosphere.

  • That's because Earth's atmosphere absorbs a lot of the infrared light that passes through it.

  • Already, existing space telescopes like Hubble do a wonderful job of peering back in time to take images of the distant universe.

  • But the space missions are relatively few and far between, and they tend to be expensive.

  • The price tag starts at about $100 million and creeps up from there, whereas the balloons, they're much cheaper and you get to payload back.

  • So if you try something that's really cutting edge and it doesn't quite work the first time, you can get it back, tweak it, fly it again the next year.

  • That's where Bob Cat comes in.

  • This NASA project is short for the balloon born cryogenic telescope test bed.

  • Its purpose is to fly large telescopes on balloons above the atmosphere.

  • But it's easier said than done.

  • If you're trying to put a large telescope up on a balloon, you've got to protect it.

  • You've got to find some way of keeping it cold.

  • That's because most of the light in the universe is emitted as heat radiation in the infrared wavelength range, so heat from the telescope could obscure the image, so we typically would put it into a doer flask.

  • It's an insulating container, very much like a travel mug, except instead of putting hot coffee into it, we put ultra cool liquid helium into it.

  • That's only a couple of degrees above absolute zero.

  • But the problem is, if we make the doers three or four times larger, the door itself weighs four or five tons, and it's more weight than the balloons can carry.

  • So Alan, his team are working on a cool way to lighten the load.

  • What we're doing with Bobcat is realizing that we're never going to look through this telescope on the ground.

  • We're going to look through the telescope when it's up there, 25 miles up at the edge of outer space.

  • At that altitude, the doer experiences a fraction of atmospheric pressure would encounter closer to the ground, so the door walls, instead of being real heavy, thick stainless steel.

  • They're stainless steel not much thicker than a beer can.

  • So when sometimes we call this, the beer can project.

  • The NASA team first tested this crowd and a concept on a balloon in 2019 Bobcat one was a relatively short flight.

  • Once we were up there we were able to perform our cries and transfer and measure the helium boil off rate.

  • The next step, which we hope to do this summer, is to fly the first version of an ultralight duer, which has maybe a 20% of the weight of a conventional duer to show that these, uh, construction techniques that we're talking about actually work.

  • The actual telescope will come a few years in the future.

  • Once we've demonstrated that you can build and fly these ultra light doers and that you can scale them up from the size of a couch to the size of a whole living room.

  • And a larger telescope endure comes with an increase in the telescopes sensitivity.

  • A telescope like that, with that kind of sensitivity, could look at planets transiting in front of stars outside our own solar system.

  • You can look at clouds of gas and dust in our galaxy to see where and how stars are forming to understand what's the process by which stars and planetary systems like our own form.

  • If you were thinking that time would be a constraining factor for these new observatory's well, think again.

  • The team plans to launch telescopes on balloons that stay afloat for weeks to months.

  • At that point, it's really getting observing times into the ballpark of a small satellite.

  • But instead of a small satellite, you're talking about gigantic telescope.

  • This approach allows the telescope to return to Earth and then launch again and again and again.

  • I would say that ballooning is an unknown gem in space science.

  • So a lot of people don't even know we exist.

  • Don't realize what has been done on balloons, and as they find out they're oftentimes amazed.

  • I get inspired by being able to provide a unique platform for science.

  • The Bobcat mission is really exciting, and when he is successful it will open up not only his science but potentially other science.

  • The balloons really are NASA's breeding ground for new technology, and it's a wonderful capability to have the bobcat program.

  • Here is the first step towards showing that this technology actually can work, that we understand all the problems and can demonstrate them in the harsh conditions that exist at the edge of outer space.

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NASA’s Future Telescopes Will Float at the Edge of Space

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    林宜悉 posted on 2021/03/28
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