The world’s largest balloon, the size of a football stadium, will be sent to the edge of space.
It will carry a wide-field telescope that will rival Hubble, at a fraction of the cost, say the British scientists behind the ambitious project.
The instrument, called the Balloon-Carried Superpressure Imaging Telescope, or SuperBIT, will fly above 99.5% of Earth’s atmosphere next April.
You will study dark matter, the invisible ‘glue’ that makes up 80 percent of everything in the universe.
Astronomers map it by the way it bends light rays, a technique known as gravitational lensing.
Professor Richard Massey from Durham University said: “Cavemen could crush rocks to see what they are made of.
“We are going to use SuperBIT to look for the crackle of dark matter. It is the same experiment. You just need a space telescope to see it. “
SuperBIT, a collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, Durham, Toronto and Princeton Universities, cost £ 1.5 million ($ 2 million) to build, compared to £ 3.6 billion ($ 5 billion) for Hubble. from NASA.
The international team is confident that SuperBIT’s high-resolution images will be just as impressive.
It will test if dark matter slows down during collisions. No particle collider on Earth can accelerate dark matter. But this is a key signature predicted by theories that could explain recent observations of strangely behaving subatomic particles called muons.
Light from a distant galaxy can travel for billions of years before reaching our telescopes.
In the last fraction of a second, it has to traverse Earth’s turbulent, swirling atmosphere, and our view of the universe becomes blurry.
Observatories on the ground are built at high altitude sites to overcome some of this.
But just placing a telescope in space completely escapes the effect. SuperBIT changes that.
It has a mirror half a meter in diameter and the huge helium balloon takes it to an altitude of almost 40 km.
The mission will also be much less expensive than a typical machine-based alternative, and it won’t take as long to plan.
A final test flight in 2019 demonstrated the telescope’s extraordinary pointing stability.
It was enough to thread a needle 1 km (0.62 miles) away and hold it for an hour. It will allow images as sharp as those from Hubble.
The feat has never been accomplished because it is extremely difficult and the balloons can only stay in the air for a few nights – too short for an ambitious experiment.
But NASA recently developed ‘super pressure’ balloons that can hold helium for months.
No instrument has revealed more about the heavens than Hubble. But SuperBIT could be “even better,” the researchers said.
It will take off from Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand by ballooning by seasonal seasonal winds.
It will circumnavigate the Earth several times, capturing images of the sky throughout the night, and then using solar panels to recharge its batteries during the day.
The ability to return payload for relaunch means that its design has also been fine-tuned and improved on several test flights.
Satellites must work first time, so they often have “astronomical” redundancy. The decade-long technology had to be “space-qualified” by the previous mission.
Modern digital cameras get better every year. The creators purchased the state-of-the-art camera for SuperBIT’s last test flight a few weeks before launch.
The space telescope will remain upgradeable or will have new instruments on each future flight.
Mohamed Shaaban, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, said: “The new balloon technology makes visiting space cheap, easy and environmentally friendly.
“In addition to building a space telescope, our team has successfully tested all kinds of electronic and mechanical systems that could be used in future satellites.”
The galaxies are believed to reside within large clumps and strands of dark matter, the gravity of which distorts images of more distant galaxies.
Professor Massey said, “It’s a bit like looking at the street lights through a textured bathroom window.”
These distortions, known as faint lenses, can reveal the distribution of dark matter and help track the evolution of the universe.
In the long term, Hubble will not be repaired again when it inevitably fails.
For the next 20 years, ESA / NASA missions will allow imaging only at infrared wavelengths.
These include the James Webb telescope launching this fall and the single-band Euclid observatory next year.
By then, SuperBIT will be the only facility in the world capable of high resolution multi-color ultraviolet and optical observations.
The team already has funding to design an upgrade to the 0.5 to 1.5 meter wide SuperBIT mirror.
The balloon could even carry one that is about two meters wide.
Ten-fold light gathering power, combined with its wider-angle lens and more megapixels, will make this larger instrument even better than Hubble.
The low cost would even allow to have a fleet of space telescopes that offer time to astronomers around the world.
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