Future Tense

Scientists Are Using a Balloon to Launch a Telescope

And it’s kind of genius.

A telescope image with a large blue-yellow nebula and the center and various stars surrounding it.
An image of the Rotten Egg Nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA in August 2001. NASA/AFP/Getty Images

Exploring space requires scientists to get a little creative. One of my professors at Arizona State University once proposed a mission to smash a copper ball into Mars to examine the ejecta and subsurface of the planet. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Sometimes, the simplest and cheapest solutions are best in a field where high-tech offerings can pose a significant chance of failure.

Cheap solutions like, say, launching a telescope via a stadium-sized high-tech helium balloon instead of a rocket. That’s the idea behind the Super-Pressure Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope—or SuperBIT, which is expected to make its operational debut in April 2022. On June 21, at the Royal Astronomical Society’s annual National Astronomy Meeting, the team (consisting of scientists from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and universities in Canada, the U.S., and England) shared results from testing. This balloon will soon provide telescope imagery to rival (and possibly surpass) that of the Hubble Space Telescope—along with reducing the backlog of imagery requests. As useful as Hubble is, it simply can’t meet the demand of every scientist who wants to task it for a scientific query. It is just one telescope, after all.

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So, this telescope isn’t exactly going to space; it will work at an altitude of roughly 25 miles above the surface, according to a Royal Astronomical Society press release. That’s above 99.5 percent of Earth’s atmosphere—so, as you may have recently learned from Bezos and Branson’s childish spat, it’s technically not in space. But unlike Bezos and Branson, it’s actually going to produce useful science. This balloon setup will get the telescope above the atmospheric interference that is critical to ensure good imagery. The atmosphere protects Earth from the harmful effects of various electromagnetic radiation, but it can also blur the images telescopes capture.

Now you may be wondering: How long will this helium balloon stay aloft? We’ve all seen birthday balloons slowly drop to the floor after a few days of clinging to our ceiling. Well, that’s where NASA’s ingenuity comes in. The super-pressure balloon maintains enough internal pressure to stay aloft day or night and should stay airborne for weeks, possibly even months if it needs to. This is quite an improvement when compared with NASA’s past attempt at this design: In late 2014 it planned to keep an Antarctic telescope aloft for 100 days. But the balloon quickly sprung a leak and was forced to land just two days into the mission.

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So, given the technical issues NASA has faced in the past, why use a balloon? Three key reasons. First, the cost. The construction and operation budget for the SuperBIT’s first telescope was roughly $5 million, which is insanely cheap by space standards. For context, the Royal Astronomical Society estimated that this is .1 percent of the cost of a similar satellite mission. Second, the ability to bring the balloon back to the surface for repairs and upgrades makes this telescope system uniquely flexible. Given this, the SuperBIT setup isn’t married to one set of hardware forever once launched. As Mohamed Shaaban, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto and a central member of the project, explained for Space.com, “SuperBIT can be continually reconfigured and upgraded.” When Hubble becomes obsolete, well, Hubble is no longer useful. And as we recently learned, it’s quite a bother to repair its 1980s technology when it breaks. If a telescope aboard SuperBIT becomes obsolete or runs into technical issues, you just bring the balloon back to the surface and put a new telescope on it. Finally, the use of balloon removes the necessity of burning rocket fuel to launch a telescope. (Rocket fuel is predictably terrible for the environment.)

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And the team behind this project isn’t just stopping with SuperBIT. After successfully launching the SuperBIT mission, they plan to focus their sights on the ultimate goal of the project: the GigaBIT. As its name suggests, it’s the SuperBIT, just bigger—with an optical system that is three times larger. This allows for even better imagery. The University of Toronto’s informational page on the project expects a test flight of GigaBIT to launch in September 2022.

If SuperBIT finds success, it could usher in a new, cost-effective method of launching observational telescopes to meet the needs of astronomers and space scientists around the globe.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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