Balloon Telescope GUSTO lands on Antarctica after record-breaking flight

GUSTO takes off on December 31st 2023. Credit: NASA
GUSTO takes off on December 31st 2023. Credit: NASA

After a record-breaking 57 days, 7 hours and 38 minutes, NASA’s balloon telescope GUSTO completed its flight above Antarctica by landing on the ice by parachute. The mission was designed to last 55 days. GUSTO has observed atomic clouds in our own galaxy and its nearest neighbor with far-infrared cameras, developed by SRON and TU Delft.

Since its launch on new year’s eve, the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) has floated along the circumpolar vortex at 36-40 km altitude above Antarctica. During its 57 days in the air, it has mapped a large part of our Milky Way, including the center, and a satellite galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Gusto has spiraled outwards for three orbits before losing altitude. As night was gaining more and more terrain, especially on the outer parts of the continent, altitude drops were inevitable and eventually caused an expected end of the mission. GUSTO had already completed its mission plan.

’We are celebrating a huge success,’ says Jian-Rong Gao (SRON/TU Delft), the project leader for the Dutch contribution. ’GUSTO has collected vast amounts of data during its 57 days in the stratosphere. And we are very happy that it landed on land rather than in the ocean. This means NASA can recover it when spring sets in on the southern hemisphere. Recovery is actually not necessary because all the data has already been transferred to the ground station. But it would be great for a museum and some parts could even be re-used for future missions.’

GUSTO is designed to unravel the star formation process-from the formation of gas and dust clouds all the way to the dying process of stars and the production of the next generation. The observatory consists of a one meter diameter telescope and a cryogenic instrument that used far-infrared cameras to detect and map emission lines of ionized carbon [CII] and nitrogen [NI] in the interstellar medium (ISM)--the gas and dust in between stars. The camera for oxygen [OI] failed to collect data because of unexpected ice-forming on the local oscillator-a reference source. All cameras are based on superconducting detectors operating at -269 C and are developed by SRON in close collaboration with TU Delft.

’This observation technique is called high resolution spectroscopy,’ says Wouter Laauwen (SRON). ’It allows us to extract from the spectra the exact density, temperature and velocity of atomic clouds. This makes it possible to create a 3D map of our galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud with which astronomers can verify and refine their models on star formation and galaxy evolution.’