Capturing a glimpse of a rare comet’s trip past Earth on its way toward the Sun would appear to be a daunting feat requiring the greatest tools in space technology. But a Johns Hopkins University team of scientists has crafted a pretty clever way for NASA to observe the comet -- and it doesn’t even involve a space shuttle.
The Baltimore Sun reported that scientists with Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to launch this weekend a large balloon that will carry a telescope to be used in observing Comet ISON, a comet scheduled to make an appearance over Earth in the coming months. The scientists are looking forward to what can be learned by studying the comet that will be coming from outside the solar system.
“It’s a great opportunity to study some of the volatile constituents that have been preserved in the deep freeze since the beginning of the solar system,” said Andy Cheng, principal investigator for the project, called Balloon Rapid Response for ISON, or BRRISON.
The balloon will float about 120,000 feet above Earth, remaining there between nine and 11 hours, CNN reported. It is made of a polyethylene film that will be filled with helium. The superstrong balloon is able to carry a payload as heavy as 8,000 pounds, including a gondola that will be used to carry instruments during its mission. Its cryogenic infrared camera should allow researchers to capture telescopic images of the water and carbon dioxide trailing Comet ISON.
“By ascending above 99.5% of the Earth’s atmosphere, BRRISON will be able to study the materials within the comet,” Cheng said in a statement. “It’s possible that water and organic chemicals on comets may have played an important role in the evolution of life on Earth.”
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The balloon will be launched from the NASA Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, N.M. The launch is scheduled for this weekend, with the team shooting for Saturday night, depending on the weather:
— BRRISON (@BRRISON) September 27, 2013
Comet ISON will come closest to Earth on Dec. 26. It has been dubbed the “comet of the century” by some because of its outstanding potential for skywatching: “If Comet ISON survives its trip around the Sun, there’s a good chance that it will be incredibly bright and easily visible with the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere,” NASA said. “In early December, it will be seen in the morning, low on the horizon to the east-southeast. In late December and early January, it will be visible all night long.”
The comet was discovered by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok on Sept. 21 of last year.