The history of space exploration is in many ways a history of lenses. From Galileo's Starry Messenger to the powerful telescope arrays we have today, it has been two basic facts -- the curve of a glass, the sheen of a mirror -- that have largely been responsible for expanding human vision beyond Earth. And one of the best ways we have imagined to explore the worlds beyond our own is to put human-honed glass into space itself. Space telescopes can capture images that are unblurred by Earth's atmosphere.
But while the Hubbles and the Chandras of the world are amazing sources of scientific data about the distant universe, they are also amazingly expensive sources of those data. Hubble, launched into orbit in 1990, cost around $2.5 billion; Chandra, prior to its 1999 launch, was scaled down in its capabilities -- with a reduction of the number of mirrors it contained from 12 to eight and a reduction in scientific instruments from six to four -- in order to minimize its costs.
So while our appetites for exploration are large, our resources are (relatively) small. Especially now, during this time of austerity here on Earth, it's salad days when it comes to our scanning of the universe. Which means that scientists need to devise ways not just to process the new knowledge we gather, but also to gather that knowledge as efficiently -- read: as cheaply -- as possible.
A team of researchers in the U.S. and Europe think they've done just that. The group has devised a system for exploring the universe through a telescope that will hover over 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere.
And that telescope will be hanging from a balloon.