Several classes of planetary science observations require high spatial resolution in UV and visible wavelengths. Key examples include (a) the detection of satellites and characterization of their orbits, (b) the discovery of faint and small objects among the NEO, asteroid, Kuiper belt or Sedna-like populations and (c) cloud or trace gas observations in planetary atmospheres. Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observations have been very productive in these areas: consider the recent discovery of Makemake's satellite (Parker et al., 2016), the discovery of 2014 MU69 (now the flyby target of the New Horizons spacecraft) or the OPAL (Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy) program.
Like HST, large-aperture ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics can also achieve spatial resolutions of 50 mas, but normally at wavelengths longer than ~1 μm. Projects like MagAO-2K are working on improving image quality at visible wavelengths, but while the core PSF (Point Spread Function) width might be narrow (projected to be 15 mas at the Magellan telescope), the Strehl ratio drops steeply with wavelength (Males et al., 2016). Not all science goals suffer equally from low Strehl ratios, however: cloud tracking on Venus is more tolerant of a low Strehl ratio than searching for a close satellite of Makemake.
A telescope on a NASA super-pressure balloon would float above 99.3% of the atmosphere, where the inner Fried parameter is thought to be two meters or more. While atmospheric turbulence is not expected to impact image quality, there are other sources of wavefront error (WFE), such as mirror figuring, misalignment of the OTA (Optical Telescope Assembly) or asymmetric heating from the Sun or Earth. We reference recent work that estimates balloon telescope WFEs from different sources to generate a suite of plausible PSFs. We apply these PSFs to the UV and visible wavelength science cases outlined in the GHAPS/SIDT report (Gondola for High Altitude Planetary Science/Science Instrument Definition Team). We quantify the impact that WFE has on achieving the planetary observations outlined in the SIDT report.