UA team attempts to map Milky Way

Amer Taleb

If they win NASA’s $55 million grant, the UA Steward Observatory’s GUSSTO mission will map the Milky Way galaxy through its telescope’s 1-meter diameter mirror.

About 1,000 feet of cable would connect the telescope to a balloon that can expand wider than a football field. GUSSTO, which stands for Gal/Xgal U/LDB Spectroscopic/Stratospheric THz Observatory, would launch from Antarctica, fly over the Southern Hemisphere and land 100 days later.

“We’re trying to understand the life cycle of how dust and gas clouds get turned into stars and planets,” said Craig Kulesa, co-investigator of GUSSTO and an assistant astronomer with the Steward Observatory. “Five billion years ago, one of those clouds formed the solar system and the Earth,” he said. “We come from that.”

The way gas clouds form and evolve through their life cycles isn’t fully understood, Kulesa said.

“We know it must happen, but the process has never been witnessed,” he said. “GUSSTO will witness the entire process.”

The balloon will lift the telescope 120,000 feet into the stratosphere. Using a balloon to carry the telescope is cheaper and less restrictive than a 200-pound satellite. They’re also reusable, Kulesa added.

When it’s time to end the mission, a button will be pushed, an explosive charge will separate the telescope’s payload from the balloon, the telescope’s parachute will open, another charge will discard the parachute and then the whole thing will probably land in Australia or South America, Kulesa said.

Then it gets complicated.

“There’s a common expression, ‘For every day of observation you make, it’s probably 10 days to figure out how to process the data. And it’s 100 days to figure out what it means’,” Kulesa said. “Understanding the full impact of the life cycle could take a decade.”

The UA is collaborating with Arizona State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and organizations in the Netherlands among other groups.

“As with all these projects, it takes a whole village to make them happen,” Kulesa said. “The UA is the center point of the mission, but it’s a huge team effort.”

NASA’s Explorers Mission program already gave GUSSTO $250,000 for an 11-month study to demonstrate feasibility. Assuming GUSSTO wins the program’s $55 million dollar grant in 2013, the mission would launch around 2016, Kulesa said.

EXCEDE, or the Exoplanetary Circumstellar Environments and Disk Explorer, is another Steward Observatory mission competing for a larger Explorers Mission grant.

EXCEDE would contribute to enabling the study of the formation, evolution and architectures of exoplanetary systems through direct imaging, according to NASA’s website.