Both terrestrial telescopes and their orbital counterparts have some pretty significant limitations — ground based observatories must deal with the obscuring effects of the Earth's atmosphere and space telescopes are incredibly expensive to launch. But NASA's newest telescope will deliver space-quality observations at a Earth-bound 'scope price.
The Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS) is, essentially, a temporary space telescope. It's designed to float up to around 37,000m where it can sit atop most of the planet's atmosphere,stay there for up to 24 hours, then gently return to the ground for recovery. The observatory's 7m tall, 2358kg gondola houses an 80cm telescope and a pair of cameras — one infrared, one ultraviolet/visible — as well as a host of sensory equipment.
This technology will be put to use studying a variety of objects — nearby stars, other planets and what not — but will primarily study the micro-environments present around asteroids and comets in the Oort cloud. Specifically, the BOPPS will look for organic the presence of organic compounds like carbon dioxide or water locked in the cores of two comets: C/2013A1 Siding Spring and C/2012K1 PanSTARRS.
BOPPS made its maiden flight last Thursday and will go up again on October 19 when PANSTARRS and Sliding Spring both will swoop past Mars. The data BOPPS collects could help researchers glean new insights into the nature and and origins of our solar system's water supply. [NASA 1, 2]