A large tear-drop shaped balloon towers above surrounding work trucks on a flat expanse of snow.

Get to know GUSTO and learn how to bring the science and engineering behind this unique balloon-based mission into the classroom.

A NASA balloon mission designed to study the interstellar medium – the space between stars – will take to the skies above Antarctica in December 2023.

Read on to learn how the GUSTO mission's unique design and science goals can serve as real-life examples of STEM concepts. Then, explore lessons and resources you can use to get students learning more.

What the GUSTO Mission Will Do

Though many people think of space as empty except for things like stars, planets, moons, asteroids, meteors, and comets, it’s anything but. Typically, there is one molecule of matter in every cubic centimeter of the space between stars known as the interstellar medium. In more dense clouds of interstellar gas, there could be as many as 1,000,000 molecules per cubic centimeter. It might not seem like much compared with the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules in every cubic centimeter of air we breathe, but the interstellar medium can tell us a lot about how stars and planets form and what role gases and dust play in our galaxy and others.

Star-forming nebulas birth Sun-like stars, which turn into red giants, then planetary nebulae, then white dwarfs. Massive stars are also born from star-forming nebulas and become red supergiants, then supernova, then either black holes or neutron stars.

This diagram shows the life cycles of Sun-like and massive stars. Credit: NASA, Night Sky Network | › Learn more about star life cycles

Like plants and animals, stars have a life cycle that scientists want to better understand. Gases and dust grains that make up a dense interstellar cloud, known as a nebula, can become disturbed, and under the pull of their own gravity, begin collapsing in on themselves. Eventually stars form from the gas and planets form from the dust. As a star goes through its life, it eventually runs out of sources of energy. When this happens, the star dies, expelling gases – sometimes violently, as in a supernova – into a new gas cloud. From here, the cycle can start again. Scientists want to know more about the many factors at play in this cycle. This is where GUSTO comes in.

GUSTO – short for Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory – is a balloon-based telescope that will study the interstellar medium, the small amount of gas and dust between the stars. From its vantage point high above almost all of the Earth’s atmosphere, GUSTO will measure carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen emissions in the far-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, focusing its sights on the Milky Way galaxy and the nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

A speckled field of bluish stars is intersected by a diagonal strip of purple and brown clouds covering a glowing yellow band beyond.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has hundreds of billions of stars and enough gas and dust to make billions more stars. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

The mission is designed to provide scientists with data that will help them understand the complete lifecycle of the gas and dust that forms planets and stars. To achieve its goals, GUSTO will study:

  • The composition and formation of molecular clouds in these regions.
  • The formation, birth, and evolution of stars from molecular clouds.
  • The formation of gas clouds following the deaths of stars. And the re-start of this cycle.
Thick clouds of purple and pastel pink cover a speckled field of stars with clusters of large and especially bright blue and yellow stars glowing through the clouds.

Nearly 200,000 light-years from Earth, the Large Magellanic Cloud is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. Vast clouds of gas within it slowly collapse to form new stars. In turn, these light up the gas clouds in a riot of colors, visible in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Scientists hope to use the information collected by GUSTO to develop models of the Milky Way and Large Magellanic Cloud. Studying these two galaxies allows scientists to observe more details and make more accurate models. Those models can then be used for comparing and studying more distant galaxies that are harder to observe.

Why Fly on a Balloon?

Unlike most NASA missions, GUSTO won’t launch on a rocket. It will be carried to approximately 120,000 feet (36.5 kilometers) above Antarctica using what’s known as a Long Duration Balloon, or LDB.

Balloon missions provide a number of advantages to scientists conducting research. They are more affordable than missions that go to space and require less time to develop. They also offer a way to test new scientific instruments and technologies before they are used in space. For these reasons, balloons have become a popular way for university students to gain experience building and testing science instruments.

Explore how balloons are being used for Earth and space science in this video from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is providing the mission operations for GUSTO and the balloon gondola where the mission's instruments will be mounted. | Watch on YouTube

GUSTO's use of the Long Duration Balloon provided by NASA’s Balloon Science Program offers several advantages over other types of scientific balloons. Conventional scientific balloons stay aloft for a few hours or a few days and rely on the balloon maintaining a line-of-sight to send and receive data. Long Duration Balloons use satellites for sending data and receiving commands and can stay afloat for a few weeks to a couple of months.

Made with a thin, strong, plastic film called polyethylene, LDBs are partially inflated with helium. As the balloon rises, the surrounding air pressure decreases, allowing the gas inside the balloon to expand, increasing the volume and pressure of the balloon. When fully expanded, the balloon has a volume of around 40 million cubic feet (1.1 million cubic meters). That’s big enough to fit an entire football stadium inside.

An A-frame support structure with two sets of wing-like solar panels extending from its sides floats above Earth holding a telescope at its center.

GUSTO will be attached to a balloon gondola like the one depicted in this artist's rendering. | + Expand image

The telescope itself will be attached to a platform known as a gondola, which is home to several components that make the mission possible. The multi-axis control system will keep the platform stable during flight, allowing for precisely pointing GUSTO’s 35-inch (90-centimeter) diameter telescope in the right direction. Cryocoolers and liquid helium will keep the telescope’s scientific instruments at the necessary low temperature of -452°F (4° Kelvin). And the gondola will house a radio system that allows operators on the surface to control the balloon and telescope. All these systems will be powered by lithium-ion batteries charged during flight by a set of solar arrays.

Location is Everything

GUSTO is designed to measure terahertz wavelengths (in the far-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum), a range of energy that is easily absorbed by water vapor. However, the observatory's altitude will put it in the upper half of the stratosphere and above 99% of the water vapor in the atmosphere. This makes it an ideal location for the mission to make its measurements and avoid factors that might otherwise obstruct its view.

GUSTO will make its observations from the upper half of the stratosphere, which offers several benefits over observing from lower in the atmosphere or from the ground. Credit: NASA | › Explore the interactive graphic

The stratosphere offers another advantage for GUSTO. This layer of the atmosphere warms as altitude increases, making the top of the stratosphere warmer than the bottom. The colder air at the bottom and warmer air at the top prevents mixing and air turbulence, making the air very stable and providing a great place to observe space. You may have noticed this stability if you’ve seen a flat-topped anvil-shaped storm cloud. That flat top is the cloud reaching the bottom of the stratosphere, where the stable air prevents the cloud from mixing upward.

But why fly GUSTO above Antarctica? Even though balloons can be launched from all over the planet, the 24 hours of sunlight per day provided by the Antarctic summer make the south polar region an ideal launch location for a solar-powered mission like GUSTO. But more important is a weather phenomenon known as an anticyclone. This weather system is an upper-atmosphere counter-clockwise wind flow that circles the South Pole about every two weeks. The Antarctic anticyclone allows for long balloon flights of missions that can be recovered and potentially reflown.

Preparing for Liftoff

To launch a balloon mission in Antarctica, weather conditions have to be just right. The anticyclone typically forms in mid-December but can arrive a little earlier or a little later. Even with the anticyclone started, winds on the ground and in the first few hundred feet of the atmosphere need to be under six knots (seven miles per hour) for GUSTO to launch. A NASA meteorologist provides daily updates on the cyclone and the ground.

Once weather conditions are good and the balloon is launched, it will circle Antarctica about once every 14 days with the wind. The anticyclone typically lasts one to two months. Because GUSTO may be in the air for more than two months, it’s possible that the mission will continue after the anticyclone ends, causing the balloon to drift northward as winter progresses.

Bring GUSTO Into the Classroom

The GUSTO mission is a great opportunity to engage students with hands-on learning opportunities. Students can build a planetary exploration balloon and model how interstellar dust forms into planets. Explore these lessons and resources to get students excited about the STEM involved in the mission.

Resources for Educators

Resources for Students

NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

TAGS: GUSTO, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Science, Teaching, Learning, K-12, Classroom, Teachable Moments, Universe of Learning, Balloon Mission, Missions

  • Lyle Tavernier