Telescopes and Sensors Strapped to a Balloon Aim to Trace "Messengers From Outer Space"

Designed to trace ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and neutrinos to their sources, EUSO-SPB2 will ride the winds 20 miles above the Earth.

A team of scientists, led by the University of Chicago, is attempting to find the origin points of particles described as "messengers from outer space" — using a balloon to take a pair of telescopes 20 miles into the sky.

"This is an important step towards solving the mystery of where in the universe these [energetic] particles are coming from, and how they could possibly be made," claims Angela Olinto, professor and lead of the 280-strong research team from 77 institutions across 13 countries. "These are particles that we simply cannot create ourselves on Earth; we need to use these space travelers to learn more about them."

First, though, the team has to find the particles — which arrive from outer space and hit the Earth as it gets in the way of their travels. The solution: the Extreme Universe Space Observatory on a Super Pressure Balloon, EUSO-SPB2 — which literally straps two telescopes to a high-altitude balloon in the hopes they'll ride wind currents some 110,000 feet above the Earth's surface.

One telescope aims to find traces of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, the highest-energy particles in the known universe; the other will look for neutrinos, hard to spot as they typically pass straight through matter without interacting with it in the least. Both particles, scientists theorize, comes from far outside the Milky Way — and it's the mission's task to figure out whether that's the case and, hopefully, trace them back to their origins to find out how they came to be.

"We had to choose materials that were light enough to fit within the weight limit for what the balloon can carry," explains team member Johannes Eser, "but also strong enough to withstand the shock of launch — when the parachute deploys, the gondola experiences up to eight to 10 Gs."

“We are preparing for a future in which we will be able to detect lots of these particles and learn an extraordinary amount from them," says Olinto. "But first we need to push the technology much farther."

More information is available from UChicago News; the mission, funded by NASA, aims for a launch in 2023.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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