SuperBIT and the secrets of dark matter


A Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT), equipped with a balloon, will help astronomers unveil the secrets of dark matter. On April 16th, the SuperBIT was brought to an altitude above Earth‘s atmosphere by a NASA helium balloon. It was the first operational flight of the stratospheric observer.

First images from SuperBIT

The first images captured during the flight include a region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way called the Tarantula Nebula. The galaxy is located about 160,000 light-years from Earth. This massive cloud of gas and dust, which spans 931 light-years, is a region of intense star formation.

SuperBIT has also captured images of the Antennae galaxies, NGC 4038 and NGC 4039, located about 60 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Corvus. These galaxies have undergone a collision and subsequent merger, and astronomers suspect it began a few hundred million years ago. The Antennae galaxies are therefore the closest and youngest examples of a pair of colliding galaxies.

The main purpose of SuperBIT will be to capture images of galaxies in the visible to near-ultraviolet light spectrum. While the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope cover that range, SuperBIT has a wider field of view than the telescope launched in 1990.

The Tarantula Nebula captured by the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) after its first launch on April 16, 2023
The Tarantula Nebula captured by the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) after its first launch on April 16, 2023. Credit: NASA/SuperBIT

How will dark matter be investigated?

Dark matter does not interact with electromagnetic radiation or light like ordinary matter that surrounds us daily. This makes dark matter practically invisible, but by interacting with gravity, astronomers can infer its presence.

The phenomenon of gravitational lensing is an excellent way to map the distribution of dark matter in space. SuperBIT could help scientists determine if dark matter particles can bounce off each other when nearby galaxy clusters collide. This research could finally reveal which particles make up dark matter.

“It takes the gravity of an entire galaxy to move dark matter. SuperBIT will examine colliding galaxy clusters. Essentially, we are using the universe’s largest particle accelerators to smash clumps of dark matter and see where the pieces fly” said physics professor Richard Massey in a statement. “If dark matter breaks apart and pieces are detached, we may finally begin to understand what it is made of”.

Why a telescope attached to a balloon?

SuperBIT is a collaboration between NASA, Durham University in the UK, the Canadian University of Toronto, and Princeton University in the United States. The project was launched from Wanaka, New Zealand. The telescope and its balloon can circumnavigate the globe at an altitude of approximately 34 kilometers above over 99.5% of Earth’s atmosphere for 100 days.

But why use a telescope attached to a massive balloon? The high-altitude view of the balloon provides a clearer view of light that has traveled billions of years from galaxies in the distant and primordial universe, without being hindered by the continual disruptions and blurs of Earth’s atmosphere. Additionally, SuperBIT can be safely returned to Earth with a parachute when the team needs to upgrade tools and design. The team has already secured funding to upgrade the telescope from a 0.5-meter aperture to a 1.6-meter aperture. The improvement will increase its light-collecting power by about 10 times.

A telescope transported by a balloon is certainly more economical than an instrument launched by a rocket. SuperBIT cost only $5 million, which is almost 1,000 times lower than an equivalent satellite mission. The relatively low cost of SuperBIT could allow a fleet of such telescopes to fly over the Earth, probing the mysteries of the universe, according to NASA officials.

Stefano Gallotta
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