A telescope in space attached to a giant balloon the size of a football stadium may help humans unlock the secret of what dark matter is made of and has already sent back amazing images of distant galaxies.
The Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) launched on April 16 from Wānaka, New Zealand. It can climb to roughly 21 miles above Earth’s atmosphere for 100 days, and has already sent back images of the Tarantula Nebula, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way galaxy that exists 160,000 light years from Earth. It has also sent back images of the Antennae galaxies NGC 4038 and NGC 4039, 60 million light-years from Earth, which are currently colliding.
“It takes the gravity from an entire galaxy to move dark matter and SuperBIT will look at clusters of galaxies that happen to be colliding with each other,” Professor Richard Massey of Durham University’s department of physics stated. “Essentially, we’re using the largest particle accelerators in the Universe, to smash lumps of dark matter and see where the bits fly. If dark matter goes ‘crunch’, or if bits are chipped off, we could finally start to learn what it’s made of.”
The existence of dark matter has been propounded by scientists to explain gravitational effects that cannot be explained by currently accepted theories of gravity; scientists posit it accounts for roughly 85% of the matter in the universe. It is referred to as “dark” because it has not been seen to interact with the electromagnetic field. Its existence has been suggested because many galaxies would act differently if there were no unseen matter comprising them.
SuperBIT’s field of view is wider than the famed Hubble Space Telescope; it uses gravitational lensing to map dark matter. Because galaxies have colossal mass, they warp spacetime, and thus galaxies’ images get mildly distorted by the curvature of light, which is called weak gravitational lensing. But the distortions yield information to discover the distribution of matter in the universe, and thus unlock what dark energy may consist of.
SuperBIT will be upgraded from its current 1.6 feet aperture telescope to 5.2 feet, adding a wider-angle lens and increased megapixels, thus increasing its capacity for trapping light by 10 times. It cost only $5 million, 1,000 times less than an equivalent satellite mission.