Following the findings of the H2020-funded ORISON project, we pursue the design and development of a new European astronomical research infrastructure for stratospheric balloon-based telescopes. Our approach is to provide a versatile community-accessible observatory capable of covering unserved scientific needs, including those of star- and planet formation studies and exoplanet atmosphere research. We thus particularly focus on high spatial and spectral resolution far-infrared (FIR) observations, high sensitivity UV observations, and highly accurate visible light photometry. To a certain extent, these needs could also be addressed by space missions. A balloon infrastructure, however, will offer a more cost-efficient and flexible approach, allowing instruments more adaptable to evolving needs (exchangeable and less risk-adverse), longer overall observation times (possibility to refill cooling fluids), and larger mirror sizes (less severe launcher restrictions). So far, stratospheric telescopes, with the exception of SOFIA, have mostly served a single purpose and did not fly more than a few times. The envisioned infrastructure, in contrast, will provide regular flights, allowing it to operate as a true observatory.
The envisioned infrastructure will be prepared in two parts within the project:
- Conceptualization of the full distributed infrastructure with several flight platforms, including a suitable governance and operation structure for long-term operation and development. These will build upon a highly sensitive UV platform and lead to a next-generation FIR platform with unprecedented angular resolution exceeding that of Herschel and SOFIA by a factor of 1.5 to 2. A development roadmap will summarize the necessary development steps and funding needs.
- Demonstration of the manageability and safe recovery of high-performance and versatile astronomical balloon platforms via a prototype carrying a next-generation UV-detector and a visible camera for photometric tests.
Objectives and expected results
The primary goal of the ESBO DS project is to carry out the conceptual design and pave the way for a European Stratospheric Balloon Observatory (ESBO), accessible to a wide scientific community. To reach this goal, the project team will pursue the following objectives:
- Conceptually design a European Stratospheric Balloon Observatory with distinct platforms to cover currently unserved scientific needs (currently foreseeing three platforms: one tailored for UV and visible astronomy, one tailored for visible and near infrared high photometric accuracy and near infrared astronomy in general, and one tailored for far infrared astronomy);
- Conceptualize an operations and governance framework within which a European Stratospheric Balloon Observatory can be maintained and expanded in the long term;
- Develop a roadmap to full capabilities, particularly for far-infrared observations, including the identification of critical required developments and associated costs;
- Demonstrate the maturity of the critical technologies for the first step (UV/visible platform) via a prototype;
- Demonstrate a next-generation UV prototype instrument and visible light photometric measurements on the ESBO prototype/first step platform;
- Ensure the provision of the prototype for scientific use and exploitation after the ESBO DS
The concrete results of the ESBO DS project will be:
- A conceptual design of the full infrastructure, including: ground systems, UV-NIR and FIR flight platforms, operations and governance concepts
- A concise development roadmap, including technological and financial needs to establish the infrastructure
- A demonstration of manageability and maturity of a versatile astronomical balloon platform
- A gondola prototype, including telescope and instruments, available for further scientific exploitation