Scientists Are Using a Balloon to Launch a Telescope

Scientists need to be creative when exploring space. Arizona State University professor John Smith once suggested that a mission be undertaken to smash a copper ball into Mars in order to study the subsurface and ejecta. (ASU is a Slate partner and New America in Future Tense. Sometimes the best solutions in a field with high-tech offerings can be prone to failure are the simplest.Low-cost solutions include launching a telescope using a high-tech, stadium-sized helium balloon rather than a rocket. This is the inspiration behind Super-Pressure Balloon-borne Imaging Telescopeor SuperBIT. It will make its operational debut in April 2022. The team, which included scientists from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency as well as universities from Canada, the U.S. and England, shared their results from testing at the Royal Astronomical Society's annual National Astronomy Meeting. The balloon will soon be able to provide imagery that rivals, or surpasses, the Hubble Space Telescope. It will also help reduce the backlog of requests for imagery. Although Hubble is extremely useful, it cannot meet every scientific question. After all, it is only one telescope.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementAccording to a Royal Astronomical Society press statement, the telescope will not be going to space. It will operate at 25 miles above the ground. This is more than 99.5 percent of the Earth's atmospheres. As you might have learned from Bezos' childish spat with Branson, it technically is not in space. It will produce useful science, unlike Branson and Bezos. The balloon setup will lift the telescope above any atmospheric interference necessary to produce good imagery. While the atmosphere shields Earth from electromagnetic radiation, it can blur images that telescopes capture.You may now be asking: How long can this helium balloon remain aloft? After a few days of being clinging to the ceiling, birthday balloons have been known to slowly fall to the ground. NASA's genius is what makes this possible. This super-pressure balloon has enough internal pressure to keep it aloft for days or nights. It can stay in the air for several weeks, or even months, if necessary. This is a significant improvement over NASA's previous attempt at this design. In 2014, it was planning to keep the Antarctic telescope aloft for 100 day. The balloon burst quickly and had to be landed within two days.AdvertisementGiven the technical difficulties NASA has had to face in the past, why would you use a balloon instead? There are three main reasons. The first is the cost. SuperBITs' first telescope cost $5 million to build and operate. This is an insanely low price by space standards. This is roughly.11% of the cost of similar satellite missions, according to the Royal Astronomical Society. This telescope system is also extremely flexible because it can be brought back to the surface to repair and upgrade. The SuperBIT setup doesn't have to be tied down to one hardware set once it is launched. Mohamed Shaaban, a University of Toronto Ph.D student and central member of SuperBIT, explained to that SuperBIT can be continuously reconfigured and upgraded. Hubble will cease to be useful when it becomes obsolete. It can be quite difficult to fix the 1980s technology that breaks, as we discovered recently. SuperBIT can be brought back to the surface with a new telescope if the telescope becomes outdated or has technical problems. The use of a balloon eliminates the need to burn rocket fuel to launch a telescope. (Rocket fuel is unpredictably harmful to the environment.AdvertisementAdvertisementThe team behind SuperBIT is not stopping there. After launching SuperBIT successfully, the team plans to concentrate their efforts on the ultimate goal: the GigaBIT. It is the SuperBIT. The optical system inside it is three times bigger than its predecessor. This allows for better imagery. According to the University of Toronto's informational webpage, GigaBIT will launch a test flight in September 2022.SuperBIT could be a cost-effective way to launch observational telescopes that meet the needs of space scientists and astronomers around the world if it succeeds.Future Tense is a collaboration between Slate, New America and Arizona State University. It examines emerging technologies and public policy.