SuperBIT: Telescope Riding a Balloon Could Replace Hubble

Topic: SuperBIT: Telescope Riding a Balloon Could Replace Hubble

SuperBIT: Telescope Riding a Balloon Could Replace Hubble
Image: An artist’s impression of ASTHROS, a new infrared telescope that will be carried to high altitude with a giant balloonNASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab/Michael Lentz

Earth’s atmosphere often muffles the view from ground-based telescopes when observing space. Now, a research collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and various universities has produced a new kind of telescope called the Superpressure Balloon-Borne Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT).

SuperBIT has a 0.5 meter diameter mirror and is designed to orbit 40 kilometers above Earth’s surface. It is set up by a helium balloon the size of a football stadium with a volume of 532,000 cubic meters. Its cost to both build and operate is about $5 million, or 1000 times less than similar satellites.

In its final test flight in 2019, researchers found that it has excellent pointing stability, with variations of less than thirty-six thousandths of a degree for more than an hour. That means it can take pictures of the same quality as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), 547 kilometers (340 miles) above Earth.

Earlier it was not possible to build balloon-based telescopes because balloons tend to wander around for only a few days. However for the SuperBIT, NASA developed ‘superpressure’ balloons that can hold helium for months. This is enough time to orbit the Earth several times.

SuperBIT can also return its payload to Earth, meaning its design can be changed and improved over time and does not require expensive space-border repairs like the HST. This is additionally useful because digital cameras are upgraded every year, meaning that the telescope can be equipped with new state-of-the-art cameras on each descent, thus improving the quality of space photography faster than at present.

HST will inevitably not be repaired again after falling. Subsequently, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA will capture images at infrared wavelengths only through telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope or a single optical band such as the Euclid Observatory. This would make SuperBIT the only way to capture high-resolution multicolor optical and ultraviolet observations.

SuperBIT is scheduled for deployment in April 2022. Its first mission will be to observe clusters of galaxies in search of dark matter.

Sources: EurekAlert, NASA, Labroots

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