By Kelly Dickerson
A new telescope designed to spot black holes will take off this month, but it won’t launch atop a rocket. Instead, a giant balloon that can fit an entire 747 jetliner inside it with room to spare will carry the telescope high into the atmosphere.
The balloon will rise about 120,000 feet (36,576 meters) above Earth, or about three or four times the height that most commercial airliners cruise. From that lofty perch, above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, X-Calibur will search for black holes and clues about how they fit Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Scientists aimed to launch X-Calibur last year, but wind conditions prevented the launch. Now, if the weather cooperates, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis and NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in Texas plan to launch the balloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, around the middle of September. Henric Krawczynski, a professor of physics at Washington University who is leading the project, said earlier this week there was still no official launch date, but it could happen as early as this weekend.
X-Calibur is a specialized type of telescope called a polarimeter that measures polarized, high-energy X-rays. X-Calibur will sail up to the outer bounds of Earth’s atmosphere and focus on various celestial objects, including black holes visible from the Northern Hemisphere.