Science & Technology

The low-priced helium balloon telescope will go into operation in April next year. – Science Inquirer

Durham University, the University of Toronto, and Princeton University have worked with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to build a new kind of astronomical telescope. SuperBIT is carried by a soccer stadium-sized helium balloon and flies over 99.5% of the Earth’s atmosphere. The telescope will make its operational debut in April next year, and when deployed, it should produce high-resolution images comparable to the Hubble Space Telescope. Mohamed Shaaban, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, will discuss SuperBIT in a talk today (Wednesday, July 21) at the online RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2021).

Light from distant galaxies can travel billions of years to reach our telescopes. In the last moment, light must pass through the Earth’s swirling turbulent atmosphere. Our view of the universe is blurred. Observatory on the ground is built in the highlands to overcome this, but until now, simply placing the telescope in space was immune to the effects of the atmosphere.

The image telescope (or SuperBIT) with an ultra-high pressure balloon is equipped with a mirror with a diameter of 0.5 meters and is carried up to an altitude of 40 km by a 532,000 cubic meter helium balloon, which is about the same size as a football stadium.

The final test flight in 2019 demonstrated exceptional pointing stability with fluctuations of less than 36,000 degrees over an hour. This allows the telescope to capture images as sharp as the Hubble Space Telescope.

Not only is this very difficult, but no one has ever done this because the balloon can only stay in the air for a few nights. It’s too short for an ambitious experiment. However, NASA recently developed an “ultra-high pressure” balloon that can hold helium for several months. SuperBIT will be launched from Wanaka, New Zealand in April on the next long-term balloon. It is carried by seasonally stable winds and orbits the earth several times. Image the hollow overnight and use the solar panel to charge the battery during the day.

With a budget of US $ 5 million (£ 3.62 million) to build and operate the first telescope, SuperBIT costs about one-thousandth that of a similar satellite. Not only are balloons cheaper than rocket fuel, but the ability to return the payload to Earth and restart it means that its design has been tuned and improved over several test flights. Satellites usually have (amazingly expensive) redundancy because they need to operate first, and there is a 10-year-old technology that had to be space-certified in previous missions. The latest digital cameras are being improved every year, so the development team bought a state-of-the-art camera for SuperBIT’s latest test flight a few weeks before its launch. This space telescope will continue to be upgradeable or will be equipped with new equipment for all future flights.

In the long run, if the Hubble Space Telescope inevitably fails, it will not be repaired again. For the next 20 years, ESA / NASA missions will only be able to image in infrared wavelengths (such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched this fall) or in a single optical band (such as the Euclidean Observatory, which will be available next year). ..

By then, SuperBIT will be the only facility in the world capable of high-resolution multicolor optics and UV observations. The team already has the funds to design an upgrade from SuperBIT’s 0.5 meter caliber telescope to 1.5 meters (the maximum capacity of the balloon is a telescope with a mirror about 2 meters in diameter). By increasing the focusing power by 10 times and combining a wide-angle lens with more megapixels, this large device is even better than Hubble. At a low cost, it will even be possible to have a fleet of space telescopes that will provide time for astronomers around the world.

“The new balloon technology makes visiting spaces cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly,” says Shaaban. “SuperBIT can be continuously reconfigured and upgraded, but its first mission is to monitor the largest particle accelerator in the universe, the collision between galaxy clusters.”

The scientific goal of the 2022 flight is to measure the properties of dark matter particles. Dark matter is invisible, but astronomers map how it bends light rays. This is a technique known as gravitational lenses. SuperBIT tests whether dark matter slows down during a collision. Particle colliders on Earth cannot accelerate dark matter, but this is an important feature predicted by theory that may explain recent observations of strangely behaving muons.

“The caveman was able to crush the rocks and see what they were made of,” added Richard Massey, a professor at Durham University. “SuperBIT is looking for a dark matter crisis. It’s the same experiment. You need a space telescope to see it.”

Image: Richard Massey / Durham University.

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The low-priced helium balloon telescope will go into operation in April next year. – Science Inquirer The low-priced helium balloon telescope will go into operation in April next year. – Science Inquirer

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