Massive ball the size of a soccer stadium to launch a telescope to the edge of space to study star formation



The biggest ball in the world, the size of a football stadium, must be sent to the ends of space.

It will carry a wide-field telescope that will rival Hubble, at a fraction of the cost, according to the British scientists behind the ambitious project.

The instrument, named Superpressure Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope, or SuperBIT, will fly above 99.5% of the Earth’s atmosphere next April.

He will study dark matter, the invisible “glue” that makes up 80% of all things in the universe.

Astronomers map it by the way it bends rays of light, a technique known as the gravitational lens.

Professor Richard Massey of Durham University said: “The cavemen could break rocks together, to see what they’re made of.

“We’re going to use SuperBIT to find the crackle of dark matter. It’s the same experience. You just need a space telescope to see it.

A collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the universities of Durham, Toronto and Princeton, SuperBIT cost £ 1.5 million ($ 2 million) to build, compared to £ 3.6 billion ($ 5 billion). dollars) for NASA’s Hubble.

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 billions of years before reaching our telescopes.

In the last fraction of a second, it must pass through the swirling, turbulent Earth’s atmosphere and our view of the universe becomes blurry.

Ground observatories are being built at high altitude sites to overcome some of these problems.

But only the placement of a telescope in space totally escapes the effect. SuperBIT changes that.

It has a mirror half a meter in diameter and is carried to an altitude of nearly 25 miles (40 km) by the enormous helium balloon.

The mission will also be much cheaper than a classic machine-based alternative and 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 at 0.62 mile (1 km) and hold it for an hour. It will allow images as sharp as those of Hubble.

The feat was never achieved as it is extremely difficult and the balloons could 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 of 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, blown away by the balloon in stable seasonal winds.

It will circle the Earth several times, imaging the sky all night long, then using solar panels to recharge its batteries during the day.

The ability to return the payload for the relaunch means its design has also been tweaked and improved over several test flights.

Satellites need to work the first time, so they usually have “astronomical” redundancy. Ten-year-old 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 final test flight a few weeks before launch.

The space telescope will continue to evolve or will have new instruments on each future flight.

Mohamed Shaaban, PhD student at the University of Toronto, said: “New balloon technology makes visiting space cheap, easy and environmentally friendly.

“In addition to building a space telescope, our team successfully tested all kinds of electronic and mechanical systems that could be used in future satellites. “

Galaxies are believed to reside in vast clusters and strands of dark matter, the gravity of which distorts images of more distant galaxies.


Professor Massey said: “It’s a bit like looking through a textured bathroom window at the street lights.”

Known as the weak lens, such distortions can reveal the distribution of dark matter and help trace the evolution of the universe.

Longer term, Hubble will no longer be fixed when it inevitably fails.

For 20 years after that, ESA / NASA missions will only allow imaging at infrared wavelengths.

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These include the James Webb Telescope due to launch 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 optical and ultraviolet observations.

The team already has funding to design an upgrade to the SuperBIT mirror from 0.5 to 1.5 meters wide.

The balloon could even manage to carry one about two meters in diameter.

The tenfold increase in light collecting power, combined with its wider angle lens and more megapixels, will make this bigger instrument even better than Hubble.

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The cheap cost would even allow a fleet of space telescopes to provide time for astronomers around the world.

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