Giant balloon to study Comet ISON

CNN
Saturday, September 28, 2013 - 3:25pm

Exploring the heavens with spaceships and fancy orbiting telescopes like the Hubble is pretty routine stuff for NASA. But the space agency is going low-tech to get a good look at an eagerly anticipated comet.

The space agency plans to launch a balloon -- yes, a balloon -- to study Comet ISON, the much-hyped comet that many hope will put on a big sky show in coming months.

Astronomers are scrambling to figure out ways to learn more about the comet, and that's where the balloon comes in. This isn't the kind of balloon you buy for kids at a party store, but they do have some things in common.

NASA says its scientific balloons are made of polyethylene film like the material in plastic bags, and it will be filled with helium, just like a party balloon. But the NASA balloons can carry a payload weighing 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms), or about the weight of three small cars. It has a gondola to carry the instruments. Some similar balloons can fly up to 26 miles high and stay for up to two weeks.

The 671-foot-tall balloon that will monitor ISON is called BRRISON, or Balloon Rapid Response for ISON. According to NASA, it will float about 120,000 feet above Earth to observe the comet -- and other science targets -- using a telescope and other instruments. It is expected to stay up from nine to 11 hours.

"By ascending above 99.5% of the Earth's atmosphere, BRRISON will be able to study the materials within the comet," Andy Cheng, principal investigator, said on BRISSON's website. "It's possible that water and organic chemicals on comets may have played an important role in the evolution of life on Earth."

The launch, from NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, is targeted for 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, weather permitting.

Comet ISON is nearing Mars on its way toward the sun and will fly about 730,000 miles above the sun's surface on November 8. If it survives, it could brighten and put on a big show as it passes Earth's orbit on its way back to the outer reaches of the solar system. Comet enthusiasts hope they will be able to see it without binoculars or telescopes.

Its closest approach to Earth would be December 26, and it could be visible from the Northern Hemisphere for weeks in early 2014.

The comet was discovered by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok in September 2012. It is named after their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories in 10 countries organized to track objects in space.

Amateur astronomers already are posting pictures and making calculations about the comet's future. For those who want to try to track Comet ISON themselves, NASA has some tips on its Comet ISON website.

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