The GUSTO payload deployed in elevation. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Craig Weiman)

A balloon observatory designed and built to study the interstellar medium left the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel on July 3 for the next step in preparation for a December launch from Antarctica.

NASA’s Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) will ascend to an altitude of around 120,000 feet to study interstellar space – the matter between the stars – using far infrared detectors. The mission is a joint effort between NASA, the University of Arizona, and APL.

GUSTO’s integrated gondola and payload is currently underway to be integrated with NASA-provided antenna equipment at the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas.

From Texas, the gondola and payload will be flown to New Zealand to await transport to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, operated by the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program.

The gondola carrying the payload was designed and built by a team of staff members from APL’s Space Exploration Sector and Research and Exploratory Development Department.

The payload is a telescope developed by mission partners at the University of Arizona, the principal investigator institution, and was integrated with the Gondola by APL. 

“It’s a big relief to be shipping it off,” said Kieran Hegarty, the GUSTO program manager from SES, noting that the pandemic and technical issues delayed the launch by several years.

Six members of the APL mission team will accompany six members of the University of Arizona mission team to Antarctica ahead of the December launch date to help prepare the observatory for launch by installing NASA equipment and APL-built solar arrays and perform final pre-launch testing.

SES Civil Space Mission Area Executive Jason Kalirai said GUSTO is unique compared to most NASA balloon payloads, in part because it is a full-blown science mission. “GUSTO is delivering high-impact science at a very low cost compared to spaceflight missions,” he said.

Data collected by the observatory will be transmitted back to the team at the University of Arizona science operations center, who will develop a data product and provide it to the scientific community. APL will monitor the health and status of the observatory during mission operations.

“I think what I’m most looking forward to is getting that science data back,” Hegarty said. “Not only to unravel these mysteries about the interstellar medium, but also to show that the data was returned because of the great work the GUSTO team did getting to this point.”