Without the protection by the Earth’s atmosphere, there would be no life on Earth – for most astronomical measurements, however, the atmosphere is an obstacle. Early on, observers thus started to move their instrument as high above the perturbing atmospheric layers as possible. Spacecraft provide access to optimal observing conditions in this endeavour. However, they are not very accessible after launch and comparably expensive. For some astronomical applications, though, particularly in the far infrared wavelength region and in some parts of the ultraviolet region, it is sufficient to take a smaller step up – into the stratosphere.
Within the ESBO DS (European Stratospheric Balloon Observatory – Design Study) project, financed within the European Union’s H2020 programme, the Institute of Space Systems (IRS) is working to realise this step. In cooperation with five other European partners, the IRS works towards making the excellent observing conditions at an altitude of 30 to 40 km available to a broad scientific community. The explicit goal of the endeavour is to create a European research infrastructure featuring regular flights, exchangeable instruments, and open access to observation time. In practice, the work on the 3-year pilot project, which officially began on March 1 st 2018, will focus on two immediate objectives:
- On the development and construction of a prototype gondola and telescope, which shall perform technology tests as well as deliver first scientific results during its maiden flight with a newly developed UV-instrument provided by the Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Tübingen.
- On the development of a strategy for the long-term establishment and operation of the observatory – including the study of the technical feasibility of balloon flights with larger telescopes, particularly of the 5 m aperture class for far infrared observations.
With the success of ESBO DS, the first scientific data from the prototype flight will be available in 2021 or 2022 – and at the same time, work on a next, longer mission will be performed. Until then, however, some technical challenges still remain to be solved. To tackle them, the project team covers a broad range of expertise: besides the IRS, which also leads the consortium, the other project partners include the Swedish Space Corporation, the Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Tübingen, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, and the instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Granada, Spain. “With the large range of expertise at the IRS and at faculty 6 of the University of Stuttgart, ranging from satellite systems to control theory to leightweight design, we have a lot to offer to the consortium and to the project”, Prof. Sabine Klinkner, project lead at the IRS, stresses the cooperation potential of the topic at the University of Stuttgart. “However, there are also other topics such as innovative optical systems that are also highly relevant beyond the boundaries of faculty 6.”
ESBO DS has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 777516.
The European project team during the kick-off event on March 21st and 22nd in Stuttgart
A helium balloon from the Swedish project partners being filled shortly before launch in Kiruna, northern Sweden (Copyright SSC)