Balloon-based telescope retrieves NASA’s dark matter data
The University of Sydney has developed a new recovery system that salvaged vital data from a NASA mission mapping dark matter around galaxy clusters.
This breakthrough came despite complications that arose after the balloon-based telescope was damaged during its landing process.
Launched in April from Wānaka Airport, New Zealand, the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) embarked on a grand journey. Suspended beneath a helium-filled balloon as large as a sports stadium, SuperBIT soared to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and circumnavigated the globe 5.5 times. However, its journey ended with a damaging landing in southern Argentina the following month.
Despite this setback, two Data Recovery System packages, carrying over 200 gigabytes of SuperBIT’s data, safely parachuted to the ground. This precious cargo included a dark matter map around galaxies and remarkable images of space. Dark matter, an elusive substance, is believed to have six times the mass of regular matter in the universe.
A study led by Dr Ellen Sirks from the University of Sydney’s School of Physics, now published in the journal Aerospace, not only provides instructions for constructing the Data Recovery System but also details the mission’s challenges and successes. This project, a collaborative effort involving scientists from Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, Europe, and Taiwan, has proven the value of the Data Recovery System in live science missions.
Dr Sirks reflected on the mission's challenges: “Our telescope was completely destroyed upon landing, and we lost high bandwidth communications. The Data Recovery System wasn’t just helpful; it was crucial for the mission’s success.”
Emphasising the unpredictability of such missions, Dr Sirks added: “Dropping something from 33 kilometres high always poses risks, making recovery packages vital for data protection.”
The Data Recovery Systems, developed over five years, consist of miniature computers with SD cards for data storage, a homemade satellite link similar to ‘find my phone’ apps, and parachutes, all encased in foam and everyday waterproof materials, including chicken roasting bags.
The retrieval of the packages in Argentina was an adventure in itself. Local police assisted in navigating the challenging terrain where the packages landed. Dr Sirks humorously recounted their experience: “We found one package near cougar tracks, which made us question our choice of chicken roast bags. Despite this, we managed to retrieve them without much difficulty.”
In typical balloon missions, data is downloaded via satellite, but this method often requires line-of-sight communication and can be inefficient. Dr Sirks noted: “In our case, the sheer volume of data made mid-flight retrieval slow and expensive. Dropping the data on SD drives to Earth, though unconventional, proved effective.”
This innovative approach to data recovery is not just a testament to the team's adaptability but also highlights the efficiency of balloon-based observations. These missions offer the quality of space telescopes at a significantly lower cost – millions versus billions of dollars.
This successful recovery system developed by the University of Sydney offers a new, practical solution for future space missions, ensuring that even in the face of unexpected challenges, valuable scientific data can be preserved and utilised.