Balloon-borne telescope is set to launch to study dark matter

Monday, Jul 26, 2021
by Hezekiel Poluan for the Office of the Dean for Research

A team of researchers from Princeton University, the University of Toronto and Durham University in England with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have designed a new telescope called the Superpressure Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope, or SuperBIT.

Caption: SuperBIT's final preparations for launch from Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base Canada, in September 2019

Caption: SuperBIT's final preparations for launch from Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base Canada, in September 2019. Photo by Steven Benton

Led at Princeton by William C. Jones, associate professor of physics, along with his team, SuperBIT is capable of making extremely sharp images of distant galaxies — sharp enough to measure the deflection of their light by dark matter that is otherwise invisible. The telescope will lift off from New Zealand suspended from a giant helium balloon the size of a football field. SuperBIT is scheduled to launch in April of next year.

Besides Jones, his team includes Research Scholars Steven Benton and Aurelien Fraisse, along with graduate students Susan Redmond in mechanical and aerospace engineering and Thuy Vy Luu and Steven Li, both in physics. 

With a price tag of about $5 million, SuperBIT costs roughly 1,000 times less than similar satellites. The balloon-borne telescope is an attractive low-cost alternative to space-based telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which is nearing the end of its life. Although Hubble remains productive, its unique capabilities are in high demand. SuperBit’s capabilities will give researchers expanded access to the unique imaging capability possible only from space.

Steve Benton, research scholar, and Darryl Johnson, logistics coordinator, unload the telescope from a shipping crate

Steve Benton, research scholar, and Darryl Johnson, logistics coordinator, unload the telescope from a shipping crate. Photo by Stephen Li.

Once launched, SuperBit will ascend to the outer reaches of the Earth's atmosphere, far above the turbulent air that can disrupt the light coming from distant stars. This turbulence can make the resulting images of the universe blurry. SuperBIT will fly above this turbulence to collect clearer images, but at a fraction of the cost of space-based telescopes. The balloon-borne camera will circle the Earth for months at a time, and can be brought down at any time for maintenance.

SuperBIT is the beginning of a much more ambitious observatory, GigaBIT, with a mirror three times as large. These projects are student-led, providing a unique training ground for the next generation of astrophysicists.