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NASA Selects Science Mission to Untangle Complexities of the Interstellar Medium

NASA has selected a science mission that will untangle the complexities of the interstellar medium, and map out large sections of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credits: NASA, ESA, and Hubble Heritage Team

Emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material present between stars, can be measured by a science mission selected by NASA.

With this data, scientists will be able to establish the life cycle of interstellar gas in the Milky Way galaxy, observe the development and destruction of star-forming clouds, and comprehend the gas flow and dynamics in the vicinity of the center of the galaxy.

Christopher Walker, principal investigator of the University of Arizona, currently heads the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission. An Ultralong-Duration Balloon (ULDB) carrying a telescope with oxygen, carbon and nitrogen emission line detectors will be flown by this mission.

This exceptional combination of data will help in providing Walker and his team the spatial and spectral resolution information needed in order to untangle the complexities of the interstellar medium, and then to map out huge sections of the plane of the Milky Way galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud, the nearby galaxy.

GUSTO will provide the first complete study of all phases of the stellar life cycle, from the formation of molecular clouds, through star birth and evolution, to the formation of gas clouds and the re-initiation of the cycle. NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition.

Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division Director, Science Mission Directorate in Washington

The mission has been planned for launch in 2021 from McMurdo, Antarctica. Based on the weather conditions, this mission is expected to stay in the air between 100 to 170 days. The cost of this mission will be around $40 million, including the cost of post-launch operations and data analysis and the balloon launch funding.

The mission operations and the gondola, referring to the balloon platform on which the instruments are mounted, will be provided by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The GUSTO telescope and instrument will be provided by the University of Arizona in Tucson.

This instrument is capable of incorporating detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

In September 2014, proposals for mission of opportunity investigations were requested by NASA's Astrophysics Explorers Program. A team made up of NASA scientists and other engineers and scientists reviewed two mission of opportunity concept studies that have been selected from the eight proposals submitted at that time. Additionally, NASA has established the fact that GUSTO is made up of the best potential for exceptional science return with a reasonable development plan.

NASA's Explorers Program, the agency's oldest continuous program, has been designed to offer cost-effective, frequent access to space by employing principal investigator-led space science investigations suitable for the heliophysics and  astrophysics programs in agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

More than 90 missions have been launched by the program, which commenced in 1958 with the Explorer 1. The Earth’s radiation belts, presently known as the Van Allen belt, named after the chief investigator, was discovered by the Explorer 1. The Cosmic Background Explorer, another Explorer mission, led to a Nobel Prize. The program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington has been managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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