Edinburgh uni team plan Hubble replacement balloon

The team plan to use a balloon suspended from a helium balloon. Picture: contributed
The team plan to use a balloon suspended from a helium balloon. Picture: contributed
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A TEAM of scientists is working to replace the £2.5 billion Hubble Telescope with a new low-cost alternative consisting of a telescope suspended from a giant balloon.

The pioneering plan called Halo, or High Altitude Lensing Observatory, consists of bypassing the considerable expense of a rocket launch by floating a telescope up and into space using a Nasa-designed helium balloon.

If successful, the plan could allow for deep space imaging and exploration for as little as £10 million – a fraction of the cost of replacing the Hubble Telescope.

The concept is the brainchild of Dr Richard Massey and his colleagues – Edinburgh University scientists Dr John Peacock and Dr Andy Taylor – at the The Institute for Astronomy.

Dr Massey said: “We know it sounds a bit ramshackle and that many think that it would never work but the best ideas are always simple and the whole project captures the original pioneering spirit of space exploration. We need to get above the Earth’s atmosphere which is like a thick soup, it’s the reason the stars twinkle as light bounces around the atmosphere. Once you get above this then you have more pristine conditions with crisper light allowing high fidelity imaging.

“This balloon will allow us to get 99 per cent of the way into space for relatively little outlay.”

He added: “Nasa have plans to replace the Hubble Telescope and the European Space Agency, who I also work with, are looking into a similar project but these plans will cost billions and take years to launch.

“We could be built and launched in two or three years.”

The trailblazing team’s plan has been accelerated following Nasa’s unveiling of Ultra Long Duration Balloons last year. Such balloons are designed to reach heights of 30 kilometres, or more than 18.5 miles, which means that although they will not reach space proper they will reach far enough above the atmosphere to deliver clear images of space.

The team is now assembling the technology at the Royal Observatory in Blackford and hopes to launch a demonstration model in late summer 2014.

Dr Massey added: “At the moment we are fine tuning the technical aspect because hanging a telescope from a balloon doesn’t offer the most stable of images. We are fitting a series of reaction reels so that when the balloon swings in one direction the telescope will counter this, stabilising the image.

“The first test will last 24 hours and we plan to launch it on one side of Canada before bringing it back down using a parachute system on the other coast.”

The balloon will use weak lensing, a process designed to study how much dark matter there is in the universe. In order for the balloon to track dark matter, the telescope must operate uninhibited by the Earth’s atmosphere.