Arizona will develop and test balloon-carried payloads in the new Mission Integration Lab

By Daniel Stolte, University Communications

May 17, 2022

Launch of NASA’s Stratospheric Terahertz II Observatory, or STO-2, in Antarctica. STO-2 is a balloon mission designed to study the gas and dust between stars, known as the interstellar medium.
Abram Young/University of Arizona

At the University of Arizona, the edge of space is closer than it seems. A few minutes south of the main campus by car, to be exact. There, at University of Arizona Technology Park at The Bridgesa new “high bay” facility under construction will allow researchers and engineers to build and test hardware for experiments and missions designed to fly at extremely high altitudes sometimes referred to as the “edge of space”, a transition zone blurry and ill-defined between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

Caroline Stewart, associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona, said the facility was designed for the specific purpose of accommodating large pieces of flight hardware, such as research platforms mounted on balloon-borne gondolas. or small payloads for space missions. Officially named the Mission Integration Laboratory, or MIL, the large hangar-like building will feature an overhead crane and have space for an environmental chamber to simulate conditions at the edge of space.

Construction of the Mission Integration Lab is underway at the University of Arizona Technology Park at The Bridges

Construction of the Mission Integration Lab is underway at the University of Arizona Technology Park at The Bridges.
Jessa Turner/Tech Parks Arizona

Here, researchers and students can work on instruments, telescopes, and high-altitude balloon technology. The facility will make Arizona even more competitive for high-level research missions such as NASA’s long-duration balloon flight missions, and help attract companies looking to advance their technology through public- private.

We are proud to be a leading institution in the field of astronomical research, and the new Mission Integration Lab will help us maintain and grow our research programs for decades to come,” said Buell Jannuzi, director of the Department of Astronomy and the Steward Observatory at the UArizona College of Science. “In particular, the Mission Integration Lab, with its large, spacious bay, is perfect for integrating the high-altitude instruments, telescopes and balloons that together will meet the demands of NASA’s ongoing program of balloon flight missions. This facility will help our talented faculty earn the right to lead more of these assignments, which can amount to tens of millions of university contracts..”

Floating at the edge of space

Balloon missions fill an important niche between ground-based observatories and space telescopes, providing an ideal way to deploy telescopes and other instruments at altitudes where they experience less interference from Earth’s atmosphere without requiring a mission. space in its own right, explained Jannuzi.

“One hundred and twenty thousand feet isn’t exactly outer space, but it’s as close as you can get without spending a huge amount of money,” he said, “and for many purposes scientists, that’s all you need.”

Dan Marrone is one of many UArizona researchers pursuing balloon astronomy. He is a co-investigator on the Terahertz Intensity Mapper, or TIM, a NASA-funded balloon mission designed to create a giant map of galaxies spanning 5 billion years of cosmic history. His research team is helping develop an imaging spectrometer capable of detecting extremely faint galaxies in the “cosmic afternoon,” when star formation in the universe had been slowing since its peak 10 billion years ago. years.

“The MIL allows us to thoroughly assemble and test the TIM payload so that we will be ready to operate it in a short Antarctic summer when we need to fly it. This will be the first place where we will assemble the set of 5 000 pounds payload that will go to the outer reaches of space,” Marrone said.

Inside the large hangar, the team of scientists and engineers will be able to suspend the entire payload of the balloon, which is nearly 30 feet high, from an overhead crane. They will assemble it, test it and let it drive itself, he explained.

Once the instrument is built, Marrone and his team will take it to Mount Graham near Safford, about three hours east of Tucson, and mount it on the Large Binocular Telescope on a “test flight.” simulated at an altitude of 10,000 feet, high enough for the atmosphere to let through some of the far infrared light that TIM sees. Next is an actual test flight on a balloon in New Mexico, and then the TIM instrument will be shipped to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to be prepared for launch, which is currently scheduled for late 2024. Suspended under a balloon giant, the telescope will ride a seasonal wind vortex that will take the observatory on a circular flight path over Antarctica at an altitude of 24 miles, from where it will observe the night sky, unobstructed by a much of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists and engineers perform a suspension test of the balloon-borne Terahertz Stratospheric Observatory payload II.

Scientists and engineers perform a suspension test of the balloon-borne Terahertz Stratospheric Observatory payload II.
Craig Kulesa/University of Arizona

Another balloon observatory run by UArizona is ENTHUSIASMwhich is led by Christopher Walker, professor of astronomy with joint appointments at the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences and the College of Engineering. Short for Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory, the mission is funded by NASA and has been approved for launch in December 2023. GUSTO will carry an infrared telescope to study the life cycle of stars in the interstellar medium, from their birth out from the condensation of molecular clouds in stellar nurseries to their evolution and death to their reseeding of the interstellar medium with the ingredients of new stars.

Stadium-sized balls

“These telescopes are actually quite large — ours is 7 feet in diameter — and they tend to work at wavelengths that are absorbed by the atmosphere,” Marrone said. “It’s only when they’re at high altitude that they can get a clear view of the far infrared part of the spectrum. Typically, they’re looking at emissions of molecules, dust, or gases in space. “

The high rise facility must be large enough to accommodate these platforms during their development and testing phase.

“You need to be able to test their functionality without having to inflate a balloon or launch them on a rocket,” Jannuzi said. “And that means having a big space with a crane where the team can hang the payload, walk around it, and work on it while it’s suspended on the ground.”

According to Steward Observatory Research Manager, some balloon-carried payloads are large and heavy enough to require balloons that rival Arizona Stadium in size. Brian Duffy. He explained that a typical long-duration balloon flying over Antarctica contains up to 40 million cubic feet of helium and can lift a payload of 6,000 pounds. Floating at a cruising altitude between 120,000 and 125,000 feet, the balloon expands to approximately 400 feet.

“The MIL is based on the design of NASA’s long-duration balloon hangars in Antarctica,” Duffy said. “It is specifically designed to facilitate and support initial integration and testing of LDB payloads prior to test flight and expedition to Antarctica.”

High bay for rent

The new facility will include a thermal vacuum chamber, where engineers can expose small flight hardware or larger payload components to the harsh environments they will encounter after launch, such as extreme heat or cold and little or no atmospheric pressure. The facility will complement a thermal vacuum chamber in the Applied Research Building, currently under construction on the UArizona campus.

Even instruments for ground-based telescopes could be tested in the Great Bay, Jannuzi explained.

“Some of the tests will require pointing a telescope at a bright planet or star,” he said. “The great thing about Space is that it’s not only big, but also easy to open it up and get your instrument in the sky right away.”

“The Mission Integration Lab expands the University of Arizona’s capability for space research requiring high-rise facilities,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, UArizona’s senior vice president for research and innovation. “Not only will this facility allow the university to remain at the forefront of research I institutions for astronomy, but it will also open up partnership opportunities with key space-related industries and stimulate economic development in the south. from Arizona.”

Available for government-funded research and private industry projects, the Great Bay complements other research and development facilities on campus to provide a unique ecosystem for space and low-orbit applications research, a Jannuzi said.

Located at UA Tech Park at The Bridges, close to the main campus as well as a planned connection to the university’s CatTran shuttle network, the facility will provide access to exceptional technology, research and development infrastructure, a- he added. Jannuzi highlighted UArizona’s unmatched diversity of testing, assembly, refurbishment and workforce training capabilities.

“We have more research coming up than we can accommodate right now,” he said, “and so we are responding by building more facilities like this, which allows us to address more advanced science and technology.”