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.
Credit: Sweden Space Corp.

A telescope lashed to a giant balloon is poised to lift off from Sweden as early as Monday to study the surface of the sun.

Dubbed Sunrise, the balloon observatory should stay aloft for nearly a week as it travels from the Esrange Space Center in Sweden over the arctic to a safe touchdown in Canada. The mission is part of a NASA experiment for balloon launches and is slated to fly up to six days to snap high-resolution photographs of the sun's surface.

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

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

Sunrise project managers plan to launch the solar telescope on June 1, but could try throughout early July to await pristine weather conditions.

Sunrise is part of a NASA experiment with balloon-launched research projects, this one in conjunction with scientists and agencies from Germany, Spain and the United States. Using balloons, NASA seeks to cut the cost of launching orbital satellites. While Sunrise is estimated to cost $60 million to $80 million, the cost of launching a similar-sized telescope into orbit might run as high as $500 million, Michael Knolker, director of National Center for Atmospheric Research's High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colo., told last year.

This is the gondola's second launch after a successful test-run over the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 2007. In that test, the balloon launched without the telescope.