Downloading NASA’s dark matter data from above the clouds

Inflating NASA’s balloon carrying the SuperBIT telescope. [Credit: NASA/Bi
Inflating NASA’s balloon carrying the SuperBIT telescope. [Credit: NASA/Bill Rodman]
Data from a NASA mission to map dark matter around galaxy clusters has been saved by a new recovery system designed by scientists at the University of Sydney. The system allowed the retrieval of gigabytes of information, even after communication failed and the balloon-based telescope was damaged in the landing process.

In April, the Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) was launched from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, suspended under a helium-filled balloon the size of a sports stadium on top of the Earth’s atmosphere, and floated around the world 5.5 times. Unfortunately, it was damaged on landing in southern Argentina the following month.

Astronomy photos from SuperBIT

Separately, two Data Recovery System packages storing more than 200 gigabytes of SuperBIT’s information descended by parachute and landed safely, including a map of dark matter around galaxies and stunning photos of space. Dark matter is an invisible substance that has a mass six times greater than regular matter in the universe.

A study led by Dr Ellen Sirks from the University of Sydney’s School of Physics , published today in the journal Aerospace , provides instructions to build the Data Recovery System she designed, and recounts the mission that demonstrated, for a relatively small cost, scientists can ensure the "This drop package is something we’ve been developing for about five years, but only now have we been able to test it in its final configuration. It’s got to the point where NASA wants to start producing these packages for other science missions as well, so this was really our final test to show that this system works."

Dr Sirks said Data Recovery Systems are comprised of small computers with SD cards to store the data, a home-made "find my phone" satellite link, and parachutes - housed in foam enclosures using everyday objects such as chicken roasting bags to keep them waterproof.

The story of recovering the packages itself was a mission. Dr Sirks said the local police in the Argentinian countryside helped retrieve the packages, given the rough terrain where they landed.

"We couldn’t find one at first and when we did, there were cougar tracks in the snow near it, so we thought maybe the chicken roast bag was not the best idea. It was quite funny. But we did retrieve them quite easily," Dr Sirks said.

In a typical balloon-based mission like NASA’s, data is downloaded by satellite, but Dr Sirks said scientists often need line-of-sight communication to


Declaration : The authors declare no conflict of interest. Launch and operational support for the SuperBIT flight provided by NASA. Funding for the development of SuperBIT was provided by NASA, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). This work was done in part at JPL, run under a contract for NASA by Caltech.

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