The Royal Astronomical Society has introduced SuperBIT, a new balloon-based telescope that, it says, will fly to the verge edge of Earth’s atmosphere to capture high-quality space images. SuperBIT is a joint effort between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, Durham University, Princeton University, and the University of Toronto.
SuperBIT refers to the telescope, not the helium-filled balloon that carries it higher than 99.5-percent of Earth’s atmosphere. According to the RAS, the balloon is around the size of a football stadium, making it capable of lifting the telescope high enough to capture high-resolution images of space.
One example of an image captured by this setup includes the iconic Pillars of Space. The benefits of placing a telescope outside of (or very nearly outside of) Earth’s atmosphere include being able to capture space images that haven’t been distorted by Earth’s atmosphere — something Hubble currently does and the James Webb Telescope will soon join.
As far as SuperBIT is concerned, the telescope features an approximately 1.6ft mirror. The telescope’s final test flight was conducted in 2019, and though the idea of using a balloon to carry a telescope to space isn’t new, there is one notable difference with SuperBIT. The RAS explains that helium balloons often lose their pressure quickly, meaning these types of missions usually only last up to a few days.
Due to a NASA innovation involving “super pressure” balloons that can hold their pressure far longer, SuperBIT will get to spend fairly extensive amounts of time circling Earth, using solar panels to keep its batteries running while capturing images of the night sky. SuperBIT will launch in April 2022 from Wanaka, New Zealand, with the goal of circling Earth several times.
In addition to offering long-duration missions, SuperBIT is also far cheaper than constructing a satellite-based telescope — at $5 million, RAS says it was around 1,000 times cheaper than a satellite with the same capabilities. As well, the balloon-based telescope can be regularly updated with newer camera technology.