The PILOT science gondola is one of three gondolas involved in CNES’s AUSTRAL 2017 high-altitude balloon campaign. The mission objectives are to expand our understanding of the universe, particularly our knowledge of Earth’s magnetic field, signals emitted by interstellar dust, and the cosmic microwave background (the very first photons emitted by our then very young universe).
The second PILOT flight, in Australia, will complement the first flight which took place in Canada in September 2015. Australian skies offer the possibility to observe areas which cannot be seen from the northern hemisphere, such as the centre of the Milky Way or the Magellanic Clouds. These can be seen by the naked eye from the balloon launch station; but PILOT will map them in millimetric and infrared wavelengths, invisible to the naked eye, with high precision. This information will be added to data gathered by other high-altitude balloon missions, ground observatories, or satellites such as Planck.
On Saturday 1st April, between 3 and 8am, the team performed tests on the Estadius daytime star tracker. This high-performance instrument was developed by CNES for various astronomy experiments like PILOT. It can provide other instruments with very precise star tracking, by day or night. Thanks to these tests, the team was able to calibrate Estadius for the PILOT flight, using a different star catalogue from the one used in the northern hemisphere.
On 3rd April, the team performed its first rehearsal for the flight. The following step is the communications test for the link between the gondola and the control centre during flight. After that, they will need to clean the mirror to clear it of the Australian dust.
After a final rehearsal to put the finishing touches to the flight instruments, the PILOT team will dress the gondola with its thermal protective cover and check its weight. Then the balloon will be launched towards the Australian skies.