NASA goes for the GUSTO to study Milky Way
NASA has selected a new science mission to measure emissions of the cosmic material found between stars, known as the interstellar medium. This data will aid researchers in determining the life cycle of interstellar gas in our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, observing the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understanding the dynamics and gas flow near the center of our galaxy.
The Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission will fly an Ultralong-Duration Balloon (ULDB) carrying a telescope with a 1-meter mirror and carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen emission line detectors. This combination of data will provide the spectral and spatial resolution to help scientists understand the complexities of the interstellar medium as well as map out large sections of the plane of the Milky Way galaxy and a nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.
“GUSTO will provide the first complete study of all phases of the stellar life cycle, from the formation of molecular clouds, through star birth and evolution, to the formation of gas clouds and the re-initiation of the cycle,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition.”
The mission, led by Principal Investigator Christopher Walker of Arizona, is scheduled to launch in 2021 from McMurdo, Antarctica, and is expected to stay airborne for 100 to 170 days, depending on weather conditions. The mission is expected to cost about $40 million dollars, including the balloon launch and the cost of post-launch operations and data analysis.
Mission operations and the balloon platform (known as a gondola) carrying the telescope and instrument will be provided by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The University of Arizona in Tuscon will provide the telescope and instrument which will include detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.
Walker and his team have previously launched two Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO) missions from Antarctica to prove the scientific merit of GUSTO. The STO missions used a telescope and other components originally intended for other missions. The first STO mission launched on January 15, 2012, and lasted 14 days. The payload was successfully recovered and upgraded for a second mission. STO-2 was successfully launched at 3:53 p.m. EST December 8, 2016. Its flight lasted 20 days, circumnavigating the continent of Antarctica twice.
Because the payloads and instruments on these missions are solar-powered, the Antarctic summer is an ideal time for balloon flights since the region experiences sunlight 24 hours a day. Additionally, a weather phenomenon known as an anticyclone that occurs during the Antarctic summer takes the balloon on a circular flight trajectory, which keeps the balloon over the Antarctica land mass and helps enable the recovery of the payload at the end of the mission.
NASA’s Astrophysics Explorer program requested proposals for a mission of opportunity investigations in September 2014. A panel of scientists and engineers from NASA and other agencies reviewed two mission concept studies selected from the eight proposals submitted at that time, and NASA has determined that GUSTO has the best potential for excellent science return with a feasible development plan.
Video Courtesy of NASA Wallops
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.