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NASA launches telescope built by UMass Lowell

Tethered to a gigantic balloon, PICTURE-C launched from NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, N.M., on Saturday.NASA

NASA has launched a telescope built by the University of Massachusetts Lowell that could someday find planets and other objects in space that have yet to be discovered, university officials said in a news release.

The telescope, which is about 14 feet long and weighs 1,500 pounds, was lifted on Saturday to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere by a gigantic helium balloon from the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, N.M.

The balloon measured 39 million cubic feet — about the size of a football field, university officials said.

Designed and built at UMass Lowell, PICTURE-C stayed aloft in the upper regions of the atmosphere for several hours before returning to Earth. NASA

The telescope rose to heights of about 125,000 feet before returning to Earth, university officials said.


Temperatures at that altitude can reach minus 58 Fahrenheit, said physics professor Supriya Chakrabarti, who directs the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology and leads the research team that designed and built the telescope.

On the way down, Chakrabarti said, there was a chance that the telescope could have made a bumpy landing by rolling down a hill or hitting a tree or “God forbid, somebody’s house,” but that wasn’t the case. The telescope made a soft landing and was in good shape.

“We lucked out,” he said. “Everything looks great. . . . We’re delighted that the recovery went well.”

The telescope is currently in a hangar in New Mexico, and its next mission is scheduled for next year, he said.

Dubbed the “PICTURE-C,” which stands for Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment-Coronagraph, the telescope includes an optical control system that was designed and built by UMass Lowell research scientist Christopher Mendillo and physics associate professor Timothy Cook.

Jason Martel, a mechanical engineer at the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology, and graduate students Kuravi Hewawasam and Glenn Howe also contributed to the mission, along with other collaborators, including researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center, officials said in the news release.


Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.