A soccer-field-sized superballoon floating in the stratosphere with a high-tech telescope captures stunning images of distant galaxies that NASA shares with Stargazer.
The Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) launched from New Zealand on April 16 and made a giant loop around the world’s Antarctica in the first 10 days of its mission.
Newly released photos show what is known as the Antenna Galaxy and the Tarantula Nebula.
According to NASA, the galaxy is in the process of colliding about 60 million light-years from Earth, and the nebula is only 161,000 light-years away and much closer.
The Tarantula Nebula is believed to be the largest star-forming region in the closest galaxy to the Milky Way.
The balloon’s position is approximately 108,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, allowing for clear pictures of space, unaffected by clouds and other atmospheric effects.
By not requiring a rocket launch to reach cruising altitude, Princeton University said it could have saved millions of dollars on what would otherwise have resembled a space-orbiting satellite.
The balloon and telescope are expected to continue orbiting the Earth for about 100 days. In the event of a problem, the operator can lower the aircraft through an on-board mechanism.
The purpose of the mission is to analyze and study the mysterious substance known as dark matter in outer space.
So far, researchers believe the image quality is comparable to those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, but at a fraction of the cost.
The balloon spent a limited amount of time on land during the mission, but the U.S. government promised the State Department would coordinate national overflight approval before launch.
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the mission about two years behind schedule, but NASA is already planning another superballoon launch in 2023.
Once launched into the air, the research team says the Extreme Universe Space Observatory 2 project will be used to detect and observe ultra-high-energy cosmic-ray particles.
Track balloons in real time with the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) at csbf.nasa.gov.