Extremely large telescopes could be assembled in space using robotics and optics

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Scientists from the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed a concept for assembling extremely large telescopes in space by using optics, metrology and robots.

The design has been described in an article published in the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS).

The robotically assembled modular space telescope (RAMST) was designed by Nicolas Lee and his colleagues at Caltech and JPL. A modular space telescope design would allow telescope components to be launched into orbit incrementally, overcoming any restrictions presented by volume and mass. This would enable extremely large telescopes to be constructed and deployed in space.

The design detailed by Lee and his colleagues focuses primarily on a robotic system to perform tasks that astronauts would not be able to perform without becoming fatigued.

‘Our goal is to address the principal technical challenges associated with such an architecture, so that future concept studies addressing a particular science driver can consider robotically assembled telescopes in their trade space,’ the authors wrote.

The main features of the authors' proposed architecture include a mirror built with a modular structure, a robot to put the telescope together and provide ongoing servicing, and advanced metrology technologies to support the assembly and operation of the telescope.

An optional feature is the potential ability to fly the unassembled components of the telescope in formation. The system architecture is scalable to a variety of telescope sizes and would not be limited to particular optical designs.

‘The capability to assemble a modular space telescope has other potential applications,’ said Harley Thronson, senior scientist for Advanced Astrophysics Concepts at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. ‘For example, astronomers using major ground-based telescopes are accustomed to many decades of operation, and the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated that this is possible in space if astronauts are available. A robotic system of assembly, upgrade, repair, and resupply offers the possibility of very long useful lifetimes of space telescopes of all kinds.’

Further information 

SPIE Digital Library