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Boffins save telescope data with a slice of Raspberry Pi

by on17 November 2023

Succeeded where higher tech could not.

A NASA experiment was saved thanks to a bus-load of cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pis.

NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) launched on April 16, 2023, from Wanaka Airport in New Zealand.

The telescope was raised to 33km by NASA's 532,000-cubic-meter (18.8-million-cubic-foot) balloon and above circa 99.5 per cent of the Earth's atmosphere.

It spent over a month circumnavigating the globe and acquiring observations of astronomical objects.

The plan had been for the payload to transmit its data to the ground using SpaceX's Starlink constellation and the US Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS).

The Starlink connection borked after launch, and the TDRSS connection became unstable soon afterwards.

The boffins decided to attempt a landing on May 25 due to poor communications and concerns the balloon might be pulled away from further land crossings by weather.

The telescope was destroyed during the landing after being dragged along the ground for 3km by a parachute that failed to detach, leaving a trail of debris in its wake.

However, SuperBIT's solid-state drive was recovered intact. Still, its data was not needed thanks to the inclusion of Raspberry Pi-powered hardware in four Data Recovery System (DRS) capsules.

Each capsule included a Raspberry Pi 3B and 5TB of solid-state storage. A parachute, a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver, and an Iridium short-burst data transceiver were also included so the hardware could report its location to the recovery team.

The capsules were connected to the primary payload via Ethernet, and 24V DC was also available.

The plan had been to release the first DRS capsule on day 40 and another every 20 days afterwards, whenever SuperBIT passed over land. However, when it became clear that SuperBIT would have to come down on May 25, it was decided to drop two DRS capsules over Argentina's Santa Cruz Province.

Both DRS capsules released were recovered from their reported locations, and the data was fully intact. Of the unreleased DRS capsules, one failed for unknown reasons at launch -- the team speculated that perhaps a cable came loose -- but the other also contained an intact data set.

Last modified on 17 November 2023
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