NASA greenlights self-assembling space telescope

May 2, 2018 by Tom Fleischman, Cornell University
A schematic showing one module, lower left, and what the finished telescope might look like, with approximately 1,000 modules assembled together. Credit: Cornell University

Sure, it sounds kind of far out: a modular space telescope, nearly 100 feet across, composed of individual units launched as ancillary payloads on space missions over a period of months and years, units that will navigate autonomously to a predetermined point in space and self-assemble.

But "far out" is exactly what Dmitry Savransky '04, M.Eng. '05, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and 15 other scientists from across the U.S. have been asked to give NASA for Phase I of its 2018 NIAC (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts) program.

"That's what the NIAC program is," said Savransky, who received his doctorate in 2011 from Princeton University. "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."

Mason Peck, Cornell associate professor of mechanical and and former chief technology officer at NASA, thinks Savransky is on the right track with his NIAC proposal.

"As autonomous spacecraft become more common," Peck said, "and as we continue to improve how we build very small spacecraft, it makes a lot of sense to ask Savransky's question: Is it possible to build a space telescope that can see farther, and better, using only inexpensive small components that self-assemble in orbit?"

Phase I concepts cover a wide range of innovations selected for their potential to revolutionize future space exploration. Phase I awards, announced March 30, are valued at approximately $125,000 over nine months to support each scientist's initial definition and analysis of concepts.

If these feasibility studies are successful, award recipients can apply for Phase II awards.

Savransky's vision for his self-assembling space telescope is all about seeing deep into space to discover new extra-solar planets – planets outside our solar system, also known as exoplanets – and map the surfaces of those we've already seen.

This proposal, Savransky stated in his proposal, is in line with NASA priorities. Self-assembly provides a path, he believes, to the construction of a space telescope the size of which would be infeasible using current design and assembly techniques, such as those for the Hubble and James Webb (launching in 2020) telescopes. Those telescopes have primary mirrors, the instrument's "eyes," of 2.4 meters and 6.5 meters, respectively; Savransky's would have a mirror in excess of 30 meters.

He readily admits that constructing a large-aperture telescope is "really hard" to do.

"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."

His idea involves programming thousands of individual hexagon-shaped modules, each 1 meter across and topped with an edge-to-edge active (adjustable) mirror assembly. These would form the primary and secondary mirrors.

Launched as "payloads of opportunity" – hitching a ride on a NASA rocket – they would navigate to their destination using a deployable solar sail, which would then become a sunshield during telescope assembly.

Their destination is known as the Sun-Earth L2, or second Lagrange, point – a theoretical point in space where the combined gravitational forces of two large bodies (in this case, the sun and the Earth) equal the centrifugal force felt by a much smaller third body (the ). The interaction of the forces creates a point of equilibrium where a spacecraft or observatory can "park."

Savransky is looking forward to the NIAC Orientation Meeting, June 5-6 in Washington, D.C., where he will get to meet with the other Phase I winners and talk about their ideas, which include a shape-shifting moon rover, a wing-flapping Mars explorer and a steam-powered autonomous ocean robot.

Peck, whose research has been supported by NIAC in the past, is excited by Savransky's vision.

"If Professor Savransky proves the feasibility of creating a large from tiny pieces, he'll change how we explore ," Peck said. "We'll be able to afford to see farther, and better than ever – maybe even to the surface of an extrasolar planet."

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18 comments

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mitcheroo
2.6 / 5 (5) May 02, 2018
You could really push the envelope in "self-assembly" by cutting out the NASA middle-man and take the project straight to Elon Musk.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (5) May 02, 2018
A 30 meter optical space telescope would be revolutionary.
434a
5 / 5 (6) May 02, 2018
A 30 meter optical space telescope would be revolutionary.


Two 30 meter ost's 1000's of km's apart ;)
Da Schneib
not rated yet May 02, 2018
Hmmmm, to make the units you would have to have a foundry that was kept active over time in order to make them compatible with one another; other wise it turns out much more expensive, tooling up a foundry whenever there's an opportunity. This is as much about the business cycle as it is about the technical design, unless the units can be made generic enough, and that's quite difficult when dealing with optical tolerances. Also the L2 point might not be optimal due to the amount of solar radiation. The point will be much closer to the Sun than to Earth.
434a
5 / 5 (4) May 02, 2018
Also the L2 point might not be optimal due to the amount of solar radiation. The point will be much closer to the Sun than to Earth.


I thought L2 was on the other side of the Earth to the Sun? I think it's L1 that is between the Earth and the Sun.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (3) May 02, 2018
I thought L2 was on the other side of the Earth to the Sun? I think it's L1 that is between the Earth and the Sun.
Haha, you're correct, and I also got wrong whether they're closest to the Sun or to Earth. Silly me, shoulda looked in Wikipedia!

I wonder if L2 is within the Earth's umbra. Good ol' Wikipedia again: it's just outside it.

https://en.wikipe...%93Earth
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) May 02, 2018
Also the L2 point might not be optimal due to the amount of solar radiation. The point will be much closer to the Sun than to Earth.


I thought L2 was on the other side of the Earth to the Sun? I think it's L1 that is between the Earth and the Sun.

Well, if you're gonna do two of 'em, might as well be at L4 and L5, then link 'em. NOw THAT would be a big scope....:-)
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) May 02, 2018
@Whyde, due to the fact that the Solar System has more than 2 bodies in it Lagrange points are only the places of most stability, not places immune to perturbation. Station-keeping therefore requires fuel, and fuel requires resupply. Better to have such equipment closer than farther.
JamesG
5 / 5 (2) May 02, 2018
I wonder how this would work for building other structures in space. The possibilities are limitless. It could be the process that opens up space utilization.
Scolar_Visari
4 / 5 (4) May 02, 2018
@mitcheroo
NASA is not a middle man: They're a customer, and they're among the only parties on the planet that have the interest and funding for such a project. Much of the R&D for projects like this are already done by contractors, and SpaceX is simply not in the market of making payloads or even engaging in the same sort of research and development.

Mind you, SpaceX has also benefitted enormously financially from NASA. Cut out NASA and you would never get the Dragon capsule (which used NASA designed heat shielding) or funding for a great deal of Falcon 9 launches, particularly in the early years.

@Da Schneib
It still takes many, many years to get perturbed out of the more stable points, but it's also worth pointing out that the Earth-Moon L-4 and L-5 are closer than the anything else but L-1.
Da Schneib
not rated yet May 02, 2018
@Visari, for a telescope and particularly for a sparse interferometer positioning is crucial and the better station is kept the less corrections from ranging have to be made. People tend to think this is a convergent set of variables but consider carefully the implications of long exposures.
Scolar_Visari
not rated yet May 02, 2018
@Da Schneib
Then clearly we must place space telescopes in the Jovian Trojans!
Da Schneib
not rated yet May 02, 2018
@Visari, but how to refuel them?
Scolar_Visari
5 / 5 (1) May 02, 2018
@Da Schneib
Employ some Belters to mine and recover the stuff locally. The Pur'N'Kleen Company has a ship out by Saturn, the Canterbury, that could probably ship over water.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) May 02, 2018
At the rate everyone thought this would go in 1963, we should already be there. At the rate we appear to have gone since then, I'd be surprised if we're in the asteroid belt by the beginning of the next century. A 1-year business cycle makes it kinda tough.
Thorium Boy
2.3 / 5 (3) May 03, 2018
You could really push the envelope in "self-assembly" by cutting out the NASA middle-man and take the project straight to Elon Musk.


Elon Musk is a soon to be bankrupt egomaniacal ass.
Parsec
not rated yet May 03, 2018
I am wondering if these units could be programmed so that as segments wore out new ones would automatically replace them. Then all you would need to maintain the telescope after initial construction is to release some new units in the vicinity. And suck up the used up ones.
Spacebaby2001
2.3 / 5 (3) May 03, 2018
You could really push the envelope in "self-assembly" by cutting out the NASA middle-man and take the project straight to Elon Musk.


Elon Musk is a soon to be bankrupt egomaniacal ass.


You are a soon to be bankrupt egomaniacal ass.

See how effective that is?

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