Giant Balloon to Launch Sun-Watching Telescope

Giant Balloon to Launch Sun-Watching Telescope
Set to launch sometime in June, the Sunrise telescope will fix its lens on the sun for about a week as it floats under a balloon from Sweden to Canada. (Image credit: Sweden Space Corp.)

A telescopelashed to a giant balloon is poised to lift off from Sweden as early as Mondayto study the surface of the sun.

DubbedSunrise, the balloon observatory should stay aloft for nearly a week as ittravels from the Esrange Space Center in Sweden over the arctic to a safetouchdown in Canada. The mission is part of a NASA experiment for balloonlaunches and is slated to fly up to six days to snap high-resolutionphotographs of the sun's surface.

The telescopeand its gondola of scientific instruments are a 2-ton payload that will beborne under a balloon that is larger than a sports arena, filled with nearly 34million cubic feet of helium. It should cross the arctic at an altitude ofnearly 23 miles (37 km). To track the sun while it floats above Earth, thegondola has a pointing system that allows it to rotate horizontally.

ThroughSunrise, scientists seek to demystify some of the fascinating and destructivephenomena caused by magnetic fields on the sun's surface. Those fields canbe associated with sunspots and explosive coronal mass ejections which lead tospace weather events that can affect the climate here on Earth. Space weather,like energeticsolar flares and solar winds, can damage satellites in Earth's orbit,endanger astronauts and even disrupt power grids on the ground.

Sunriseproject managers plan to launch the solar telescope on June 1, but could trythroughout early July to await pristine weather conditions.

Sunrise ispart of a NASA experiment with balloon-launched research projects, this one inconjunction with scientists and agencies from Germany, Spain and the UnitedStates. Using balloons, NASA seeks to cut the cost of launching orbitalsatellites. While Sunrise is estimated to cost $60 million to $80 million, thecost of launching a similar-sized telescope into orbit might run as high as$500 million, Michael Knolker, director of National Center for AtmosphericResearch's High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colo., told lastyear.

This is thegondola's second launch after a successful test-run over the ColumbiaScientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 2007. Inthat test, the balloon launched without the telescope.


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