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Our astronomers are part of an international team building a new kind of telescope.
It weighs as much as a car, and will be launched to the edge of space by a helium balloon the size of a football stadium.
The Superpressure balloon-Borne Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) will take high resolution pictures of the universe and our scientists will use it to measure the properties of dark matter.
It will circumnavigate the Earth several times at an altitude of 40km, for up to 3 months.
SuperBIT will take images of the sky at night, then use solar panels to recharge its batteries during the day.
A test flight of the telescope in 2019 demonstrated extraordinary pointing stability, sufficient to thread a needle 1km away. This stability is needed to take images as sharp as those from Hubble Space Telescope.
Balloons, not rockets?
SuperBIT will be carried by an experimental balloon from NASA, which can retain helium for months, and circumnavigate the Earth.
Compared to rockets, balloons are a cheap and environmentally friendly way to reach space. The balloon has made it possible to develop the telescope technology over several test flights – as well as planning more equipment that could be used on future satellites.
The North East region is a hub of expertise in space engineering, and we have just opened the Orbit enterprise zone at NETPark in Sedgefield, to collaborate with local businesses.
Professor Richard Massey with SuperBIT
Measuring dark matter
The science goal for SuperBIT’s 2022 flight is to obtain high-resolution images to measure the properties of dark matter. Although dark matter is invisible, astronomers map it by the way it bends rays of light, a technique known as gravitational lensing.
SuperBIT will test whether dark matter slows down during collisions. The collisions are the occasional, natural mergers between galaxies - all of which are surrounded by vast clouds of dark matter.
Find out more