NASA Picks University Of Arizona To Lead $40 Million Milky Way Mission
NASA has chosen an airborne observatory led by the University of Arizona (UA) over eight other proposed missions vying for NASA's Explorer category.
With a target launch date of Dec. 15, 2021, the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission with its airborne observatory will fly across Antarctica at an elevation around 110,000 and 120,000 feet, or 17 miles above a typical commercial flight's cruising altitude.
Basically, the Ultralong-Duration Balloon (ULDB) has a telescope with carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen emission line detectors mounted to a gondola. With a science payload of almost 2 tons, GUSTO will run on about 1 kilowatt of electrical power produced by solar panels.
"NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition," Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, stated.
After launching from McMurdo, Antarctica, GUSTO is expected to stay up in the air up 170 days, depending on weather conditions.
The total project cost is approximately $40 million dollars, including expenses for the balloon launch, post-launch operations, and data analysis.
— NASA (@NASA) March 25, 2017
What Is Interstellar Medium
GUSTO will measure emissions from interstellar mediums, helping scientists get a clearer picture of the life cycle of interstellar gas in the Milky Way galaxy and the birth and death of star-forming clouds.
According to experts, the interstellar medium is the material "from which most of the observable universe is made: stars, planets, rocks, oceans, and all living creatures."
According to principal investigator Christopher Walker, a professor of astronomy at the UA's Steward Observatory, understanding the interstellar medium is key to understanding where we came from, "because 4.6 billion years ago, we were interstellar medium."
Milky Way And Earlier Galaxies
Aside from the Milky Way, GUSTO will also map the Large Magellanic Cloud, which according to Walker, is a hallmark of a galaxy more commonly found in the early universe.
Walker and his team will use cutting-edge superconducting detectors and other instruments that will enable them to listen in at very high frequencies.
Walker said that with the measurements from the GUSTO mission, experts can have enough data to develop a model for earlier galaxies and our home galaxy, the Milky Way, which are the two "bookends" of evolution through cosmic time.
As a prelude to the GUSTO mission, Walker's team triumphantly launched a balloon with a smaller telescope — the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory, or STO — above South Pole back in December 2016.
Johns Hopkins University is reportedly in charge for the GUSTO balloon's gondola. Other participating organizations in the GUSTO mission include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Arizona State University, and the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.