NASA's next space mission will involve a football stadium-sized balloon

NASA has announced the intention to release a massive balloon into Earth's stratosphere as part of its mission to study the space around our planet. The balloon is described as around the size of a football stadium, which is officially large enough to carry an 8.4ft telescope to nearly the edge of space. NASA plans to use this telescope — called ASTHROS — to study certain light wavelengths.

The ASTHROS telescope is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which explains that this particular telescope is able to observe wavelengths of light from the stratosphere that aren't visible from the planet's surface. The far-infrared light will be observable to the telescope, but only if it gets to around four times greater of an altitude than the average airplane — and that's where the balloon comes in.

This massive balloon resembles a jellyfish, one that will float around 62 miles above the planet's surface beyond the atmosphere. There are multiple benefits to using balloons and, in fact, NASA has maintained its Scientific Balloon Program for three decades. Balloons are much cheaper than typical machine-based space missions, plus it doesn't take as long to plan and launch the mission.

The downside is that using balloons comes with a greater risk compared to typical space missions — these balloons are quite vulnerable to, for example, stray debris that may damage it. When fully inflated, the helium balloon has a diameter of around 400ft; it carries a gondola that is used to transport the telescope components. Winds in the stratosphere will carry the balloon, which will take almost a month to make a few loops around the South Pole.

NASA is aiming for a December 2023 launch from Antarctica, the space agency said on Thursday, though that may change in the coming years. ASTHROS project manager JPL engineer Jose Siles said:

With ASTHROS, we're aiming to do astrophysics observations that have never been attempted before. The mission will pave the way for future space missions by testing new technologies and providing training for the next generation of engineers and scientists.