Balloon-borne telescope

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Skyhook balloon, launched September 1957 as part of Project Stratoscope, photographed the Sun in high resolution

A balloon-borne telescope is a sub-orbital astronomical telescope that is suspended below one or more stratospheric balloons, allowing it to be lifted above the lower, dense part of the Earth's atmosphere. This has the advantage of improving the resolution limit of the telescope at a much lower cost than for a space telescope. It also allows observation of frequency bands that are blocked by the atmosphere.[1]

Balloon-borne telescopes have the disadvantage of relatively low altitude and a flight time of only a few days. However, their maximum altitude of about 50 km is much higher than the limiting altitude of aircraft-borne telescopes such as the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which have a limiting altitude of 15 km.[1][2] A few balloon-borne telescopes have crash landed, resulting in damage to, or destruction of the telescope.

The balloon obscures the zenith from the telescope, but a very long suspension can reduce this to a range of 2°. The telescope must be isolated from the induced motion of the stratospheric winds as well as the slow rotation and pendulum motion of the balloon. The azimuth stability can be maintained by a magnetometer, plus a gyroscope or star tracker for shorter term corrections. A three axis mount gives the best control over the tube motion, consisting of an azimuth, elevation and cross-elevation axis.[2]


Name Active Description and purpose
Stratoscope I 1957–59 12-inch telescope attached to a polyethylene balloon.[3] This was the first balloon-borne astronomical telescope.[4] It took photographic images of the sun, showing granulation features. In 1959 it was flown again, this time with a television transmitter.[3]
Stratoscope II 1963–71 36-inch telescope with a tandem balloon system.[3]
THISBE 1973–76 Infrared telescope used for observations of extended sources, including OH airglow, the zodiacal light, and the central galaxy region.[5]
HIREGS 1991–98 High-resolution spectrometer for examining gamma ray and hard X-ray emissions from solar flares and galactic sources. It used an array of liquid nitrogen-cooled germanium detectors.[6]
BOOMERanG experiment 1997–2003 Microwave telescope with cryogenic detectors that was carried on long-duration flights over the antarctic. It was used to map the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).[7]
MAXIMA 1998–99 Microwave telescope with a cryogenic receiver that was used to measure the CMBR.[8]
HERO 2001–10 Hard X-ray telescope that flew successfully beginning in 2001 but crashed in 2010, destroying the telescope.[9]
BLAST 2003– Submillimetre telescope with a 2 m aperture. It was destroyed during the third flight, but was rebuilt and completed a fourth flight in 2010.[10]
InFOCμS 2004– Hard X-ray telescope with a 49 cm2 collecting area.[11]
HEFT 2005 Hard X-ray telescope that uses grazing-incidence optics.[12]
Sunrise 2009– 1 m ultraviolet telescope with image stabilization and adaptive optics for observing the Sun.[13]
PoGOLite 2011– Telescope for polarised hard X-rays and soft gamma-rays.[14]


  1. ^ a b Kitchin, Christopher R. (2003). Astrophysical techniques (4th ed.). CRC Press. p. 83. ISBN 0-7503-0946-6. 
  2. ^ a b Cheng, Jingquan (2009). The principles of astronomical telescope design. Astrophysics and space science library. 360. Springer. pp. 509–510. ISBN 0-387-88790-3. 
  3. ^ a b c Kidd, Stephen (September 17, 1964). "Astronomical ballooning: the Stratoscope program". New Scientist. 23 (409): 702–704. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  4. ^ Zimmerman, Robert (2010). The universe in a mirror: the saga of the Hubble Telescope and the visionaries who built it. Princeton University Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-691-14635-7. 
  5. ^ Hofmann, W.; Lemke, D.; Thum, C. (May 1977). "Surface brightness of the central region of the Milky Way at 2.4 and 3.4 microns". Astronomy and Astrophysics. 57 (1–2): 111–114. Bibcode:1977A&A....57..111H. 
  6. ^ Boggs, S. E.; et al. (October 2002). "Balloon flight test of pulse shape discrimination (PSD) electronics and background model performance on the HIREGS payload". Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A. 491 (3): 390–401. Bibcode:2002NIMPA.491..390B. doi:10.1016/S0168-9002(02)01228-7. 
  7. ^ Masi, S. (2002). "The BOOMERanG experiment and the curvature of the universe". Progress in Particle and Nuclear Physics. 48 (1): 243–261. arXiv:astro-ph/0201137Freely accessible. Bibcode:2002PrPNP..48..243M. doi:10.1016/S0146-6410(02)00131-X. 
  8. ^ Rabii, B.; et al. (July 2006). "MAXIMA: A balloon-borne cosmic microwave background anisotropy experiment". Review of Scientific Instruments. 77 (7): 071101. arXiv:astro-ph/0309414Freely accessible. Bibcode:2006RScI...77g1101R. doi:10.1063/1.2219723. 
  9. ^ Malik, Tariq (April 29, 2010). "Huge NASA Science Balloon Crashes in Australian Outback". Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  10. ^ Devlin, Mark. "Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope: home page". blastexperiment. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  11. ^ Tueller, J.; et al. (2005). "InFOCμS hard X-ray imaging telescope". Experimental Astronomy. 20: 121–129. Bibcode:2005ExA....20..121T. doi:10.1007/s10686-006-9028-3. 
  12. ^ Chen, C. M. Hubert; et al. (September 2006). "In-flight Performance of the Balloon-borne High Energy Focusing Telescope". Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society. 38: 383. Bibcode:2006HEAD....9.1812C. 
  13. ^ Schmidt, W.; et al. (June 2010). "SUNRISE Impressions from a successful science flight". Astronomische Nachrichten. 331 (6): 601. Bibcode:2010AN....331..601S. doi:10.1002/asna.201011383. 
  14. ^ "PoGOLite: home page". Retrieved 2015-06-11.