You don’t need a rocket to send scientific instruments into space. A really big balloon works just as well, according to an international research team that plans to take a closer-than-ever look at the sun.

A recent test flight launched from New Mexico provided support for the concept. Dangling from a balloon larger than a 747 airliner, a solar telescope soared to 120,000 feet before snapping pictures of the sun. About 10 hours later, the telescope separated from the balloon and parachuted to a safe landing in Texas.

The project, known as “Sunrise,” is designed to observe details on the sun’s surface that can help researchers forecast electromagnetic storms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. In the super-thin air at high altitudes, the telescope can get a much sharper view of the sun than from the ground. The gondola carrying the telescope has a special motor that keeps the
telescope pointed at the sun as the balloon dips and twirls.

Beginning in 2009, the balloon-telescope combo will embark on pole-circling missions above the Arctic and Antarctica. There the telescope will take advantage of the midnight sun to capture continuous images for up to two weeks. —Dawn Stover