The next generation of powerful telescopes may be so big and heavy that we won’t have the capability to launch them into space. A proposed solution is in-space assembly.
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Figuring out if this is possible is the focus of a NASA "in-Space Assembled Telescope" (iSAT) study. The research group is tasked with answering the question: When is it advantageous to assemble space telescopes in space rather than to build them on the Earth and deploy them autonomously from individual launch vehicles?”
Research won't be limited by launch capability
Larger and more precise telescopes are being developed to help us understand our solar system and beyond. Scientists are already warning that the next generation of powerful scientific instruments will be much bigger than our current launch capacity.
The next oversized space telescopes will have huge apertures or mirrors thanks to radical advances in precision manufacturing. But simply keeping the telescopes small enough to be launched isn’t an option for ambitious astrologists.
Ikea type satellites open the universe for observation
Instead, NASA scientists are working on ways to launch big telescopes into space - one piece at a time. Once up there, the individual pieces will be assembled in space, either robotically or with the help of astronauts. We can only hope they have better tools than an allen key.
“Large telescopes give you better angular resolution and better spectral resolution, so the future should be bringing larger telescopes," Nick Siegler, the chief technologist for NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program, said during a presentation at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle in January.
These mammoth telescopes will allow us to see more of our universe in more detail.
They will also help scientist finding and characterizing new planets. "Of course, 'large' is relative, but the challenge moving forward is the same," Siegler said. "You have large structures that you're trying to fold into smaller structures, and the amount of work that goes into that is really quite tremendous."
But finding ways to get large telescopes into space isn’t an idea just for the future, NASA is already working on a flat pack type telescope right now. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled to launch in 2021 will fold up into the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket’s payload.
Once deposited in space, the telescope will then unfold before it can begin operation. All in all the cutting edge telescope will have more than 200 moving parts.
With its 6.5-meter (21.3 feet) mirror, the JWST will be the largest space telescope ever launched. Despite not even being launched yet, NASA is already working on the JWST's successor - which will be even bigger.
Whether this next, even bigger telescopes will be launched by a bigger rocket or sent to space in pieces remains to be seen. The NASA scientists working on the in-space assembly idea have some way to go to figure out how to do it.
Who is the best at assembly?
The most pressing question is who will put the telescope back together - robots, astronauts or a combination of both?
The Hubble telescope was serviced by astronauts, between 1993 and 2009. Although its caretakers didn’t technically build the telescope, they did install new equipment and carried out repairs. Outside of this, no astronaut has ever visited in-use space equipment. The result of the iSAT study will be published this Summer.