The tropopause, typically at 16 to 18 km altitude at the lower latitudes, dips down to only 8 km in the polar regions, allowing access to the cold, dry and nonturbulent lower stratosphere by tethered aerostats. These can float as high as 12 km, have long operating lifetimes, and are extremely reliable. In contrast to free-flying balloons, they can stay on station for weeks at a time, and payloads can be safely recovered for maintenance and adjustment and relaunched in a matter of hours. We propose to use such a platform, located first near Fairbanks, Alaska, and later in the Antarctic, to operate a new-technology 4 m telescope with diffraction-limited performance in the near infrared. Thanks to the low ambient temperature (~200 K), thermal emission from the optics is of the same order as that of the zodiacal light in the 2–3 μm band. Since this wavelength interval is the darkest part of the zodiacal light spectrum from optical wavelengths to 100 μm, the combination of high-resolution images and a very dark sky make it the spectral region of choice for observing galaxies, QSOs and clusters of galaxies at the formation epoch of galaxies.