A telescope dropped darkish matter information from the sting of area. Right here’s why


Doomsday got here on Might 25 for the payload of a pumpkin-shaped balloon on the fringe of area.

The floating gourd — inflated with greater than 500,000 cubic meters of helium and enormous sufficient to suit 60 Goodyear blimps inside it — traversed the southern hemisphere some 5 occasions in 40 days, toting a telescope that would see the unseeable. NASA’s Tremendous Stress Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope, or SuperBIT, was on a mission to probe the cosmos for darkish matter, the invisible substance thought to scaffold the universe and bind galaxy clusters collectively (SN: 8/8/22, SN: 6/23/23). By observing how cosmic constructions with robust gravity deflect close by mild, SuperBIT might infer darkish matter’s presence.

However issues had not gone as deliberate. Early within the mission, satellite tv for pc communications failed and the telescope’s operators couldn’t retrieve information wirelessly. As SuperBIT made a sixth move over South America, projections confirmed the solar-powered telescope heading towards gloomy climate and away from one other stretch of land to soundly alight upon.

Operators determined to terminate the flight early and anticipated a tough touchdown, so astrophysicist Ellen Sirks and colleagues instructed the aloft equipment to ship its information to Earth by way of capsules. The crew simulated climate situations to foretell the place the escape pods would land.

“We form of envisioned these [drop capsules] as a redundant method of backing up the info,” says Sirks, of the College of Sydney in Australia. However they grew to become necessary, she says, “as a result of all of the worst-case eventualities got here true.”

Researchers pack a drop capsule for a NASA balloon telescope
Astrophysicists Ajay Gill and Ellen Sirks (proper) pack a drop capsule for the SuperBIT mission.Steven Benton

By the tip of the day, SuperBIT had been destroyed; the telescope’s parachute did not detach upon touchdown and dragged the craft to items. However at 12:31 p.m. UTC, two small packages containing valuable darkish matter information separated from SuperBIT. Every 1.28-kilogram capsule contained a battery-powered circuit board that saved the info, encased in a foam-wrapped plastic shell sealed in a water-proof rooster roasting bag. They had been additionally geared up with parachutes — vivid orange to assist restoration. The crew described the brand new drop capsule system November 15 in Aerospace.

Whereas descending right into a rural space in Argentina, the capsules drifted horizontally about 60 kilometers. A search-and-rescue crew, following transmissions from the capsules, discovered the primary one 3.8 km from its predicted touchdown website. The second capsule was discovered practically 2 km away and some meters from its signaled location.

A cougar could have moved the capsule, as a set of tracks was discovered close by. Fortunately, the cat was nowhere to be discovered and had left the capsule unscathed. “We surmise that foam and parachute nylon are intriguing however not tasty,” Sirks and colleagues wrote within the examine.

Researchers recovered information from each capsules and, ultimately, the telescope’s stays. Sirks and colleagues are nonetheless analyzing these information, which she hopes will assist map the distribution of darkish matter within the universe. 

The Tarantula Nebula
SuperBIT captured this picture of the Tarantula Nebula, about 160,000 light-years away, whereas floating on the fringe of the Earth’s environment. Finding out the habits of starlight from the nebula and different cosmic constructions might assist researchers study extra about darkish matter.SuperBIT/ NASA

The crash-landing underscores the necessity for contingency plans, Sirks says, particularly since NASA plans to execute many extra balloon-borne missions. Her crew is engaged on insulating the batteries within the capsules, which might allow them to transmit their areas as they descend by the chilly environment. Ultimately, the researchers plan to make the capsule system out there for future balloon missions. “It’s a reasonably straightforward, light-weight resolution,” Sirks says. “So why not?”

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