NASA funding a telescope that will build itself in space

The idea could be much more cost-effective and lower-risk than building a telescope entirely on Earth and flying it up.
By Rick Docksai | May 03, 2018
Lifting a telescope from Earth up into space is expensive and fraught with technical risks, according to NASA. But the agency's engineers may take a new approach with future telescopes: Sending telescope components up one at a time into orbit and letting them assemble themselves.

Dmitry Savransky of Cornell University and 15 other U.S.-based scientists pitched the idea in a proposal to NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The program's organizers liked the idea enough to issue Savrinsky and company a $125,000 award to flesh the idea out further in a feasibility study.

"As autonomous spacecraft become more common and as we continue to improve how we build very small spacecraft, it makes a lot of sense to ask Savransky's question,"saidMason Peck, Cornell associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and former chief technology officer at NASA. "Is it possible to build a space telescope that can see farther, and better, using only inexpensive small components that self-assemble in orbit?"

NASA's Hubble and Kepler telescopes, by comparison, underwent all of their construction on Earth and rode into space afterward atop heavy rockets. Earth-bound construction is now underway at NASA's Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt on the James Webb telescope, which is due to launch in 2020.

If Stavransky and co-authors' feasibility study goes well, however, NASA could opt for space-based assembly on another telescope after the James Webb. The feasibility study is considering a telescope that will be 98 feet wide, all made from hexagonal modules that each measure around 3.3 feet across and which lift into space one by one on scheduled rocket launches.

This proposed telescope could be bigger than any Earth-constructed telescope ever built, including the future James Webb, whose primary mirror measures only 21 feet across.


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