NASA funds a self-assembling telescope that can build itself in space from a “swarm” of parts
NASA has given the green light for a new kind of space telescope – one that can assemble itself from a “swarm” of smaller parts.
The space agency has funded the project by Cornell University scientist Dmitry Savransky, who has proposed a modular space telescope build from individual units that are transported to space over the period of months and years.
The idea is that these small parts will be added as extra payloads to pre-planned missions, and, over time, they will autonomously accrue at a chosen site, where they can self-assemble into a fully-fledged telescope.
“Modules will be launched independently as payloads of opportunity, and navigate to the Sun-Earth L2 point using a deployable solar sail,” NASA explains. “The solar sails will then become the planar telescope sunshield during telescope assembly, which will proceed autonomously with no additional human or robotic intervention.”
(Graphic depiction of Modular Active Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms. Credit: D. Savransky)
The project, led by Savransky alongside 15 other scientists, has made it to Phase I of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) initiative. The team will now need to show that the project can actually work beyond a concept, with $125,000 (£91,890) from NASA to help them do this.
“That’s what the NIAC program is,” said Savransky in a statement from Cornell. “You pitch these somewhat crazy-sounding ideas, but then try to back them up with a few initial calculations, and then it’s a nine-month project where you’re trying to answer feasibility questions.”
The eventual aim of the project is to build a telescope on a bigger scale than Hubble or James Webb (due to launch in 2020) using self-assembling parts. James Webb will have a primary mirror measuring 6.5 metres across, but making something larger will require a new paradigm in construction, Savransky argues.
“James Webb is going to be the largest astrophysical observatory we’ve ever put in space, and it’s incredibly difficult,” he said. “So going up in scale, to 10 meters or 12 meters or potentially even 30 meters, it seems almost impossible to conceive how you would build those telescopes the same way we’ve been building them.”
Mason Peck, Cornell associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and former chief technology officer at NASA, is encouraged by Savransky’s concept: “If Professor Savransky proves the feasibility of creating a large space telescope from tiny pieces, he’ll change how we explore space.
“We’ll be able to afford to see further, and better than ever – maybe even to the surface of an extrasolar planet.”
Lead image: A full-scale replica of the James Webb telescope. Credit: EADS Astrium