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UA Astronomers Study Milky Way Via Balloon Over South Pole

McMurdo Scientific Station
(Photo courtesy of Brian Duffy and Christopher Walker)
The Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory launches from McMurdo Scientific Station in the Antarctic.

A balloon-borne telescope flying above the South Pole will give a University of Arizona-led team a better understanding of what we’re made of.

The telescope is part of the  Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory, launched from Antarctica earlier this month. It’s making a second circle over the continent.

UA astronomer Christopher Walker said the observatory is studying the cloud of gas and dust in between the stars in the Milky Way for clues to the origins of the universe. That cloud is called the interstellar medium.

"Four-point-seven billion years ago we were all the interstellar medium before the sun formed. We were just gas and dust floating between the stars. There is a strong physical connection between us and this gas and dust between the stars,” Walker said. “And so by understanding the interstellar medium within the Milky Way, we can understand the origin of all galaxies a bit better.”

The observatory is circling 24 miles above the South Pole. That’s an ideal location, according to Walker, because at this time of year the sun is always shining, creating stable atmospheric temperatures and plenty of solar power for the instruments.

Sara Hammond has an extensive background in journalism as well as corporate communication. A graduate of the University of Arizona’s (UA) School of Journalism, Hammond interned at the Tucson Citizen and, after graduation, spent 10 years reporting for the Portland Press Herald in Maine.