Space telescopes are large, costly, and fragile equipment that allow us to have a larger view of space and the universe that we live in. The most popular of its type, the Hubble Space Telescope, was launched in 1990 at a cost of over 2.5 billion dollars and weighs 11,110 kilograms (24,500 pounds). It also highlighted how much effort is needed to launch such a telescope to begin with. And of course, it taught us how precise we have to be…after astronomers discovered a spherical aberration in Hubble’s lenses that prevented most of its functions (and it wasn’t until three years later that astronauts were able to rectify this error by replacing the front lens).
Lockheed Martin in collaboration with the University of California, Davis with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has developed technology that could potentially shrink future space telescopes much further and increase their power, which would make space exploration and discovery far easier and cheaper.
The project, called SPIDER short for Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaisance, replaces the large lenses and mirrors used previously with thousands of tiny lenses instead.
These lenses work in conjunction with silicon-chip photonic integrated circuits, which take the various light gathered by the lenses and analyzes it to form a digital image of the object being photographed.
More technically, it uses interferometer arrays which determine how the various light captured by the lenses interact (or interfere) with each other. After measuring the amplitude and phases patterns of the interference patterns, it analyzes these and combines them to form a high resolution digital image.
The potential of SPIDER is not limited only to space telescopes with Lockheed Martin believing that it can replace safety sensors in automobiles and also be used in reconnaissance and targeting instruments in aircraft and naval vessels.
Lockheed Martin estimates that SPIDER will be available in five to ten years after maturing the technology further. They believe that their technology sidesteps the problem of scaling of traditional lenses, which require years of polishing and grinding, and could potentially allow for lighter and cheaper space telescopes in the future.
However that means that the technology will not be used for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in October 2018. It might however ensure that the next space telescope after that will cost much less, will be lighter, and also be more powerful.