Forget sending a shuttle into space. How about a giant, telescope-wielding balloon? That's exactly what the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) sent into space recently, in a practice launch that's part of what they call Project Sunrise. The NCAR, along with NASA and a team of researchers from Spain, Germany, and Sweden filled the balloon partially with helium (that's what the hoses are doing in the picture), and left the rest unfilled so that it could expand as it ascended and the air pressure decreased. It flew to an altitude of 120,000 feet, or nearly 23 miles above sea level.
The balloon was designed to be able to carry 6,000 pounds of equipment. It wields an aluminum "gondola" that carries a telescope, communications equipment, computers, solar panels and crush pads. In the future it will also carry a polarimetric spectrograph to help scientists learn about the sun's magnetic fields. The balloon will be launched next in the summer of 2009 over the North Pole, this time for 20 days, as opposed to this month's 10 hour launch. We're glad that NCAR came up with a more economical way to study the sun than sending space shuttles. Who knew that space balloons would be such an emerging trend?