Giant space telescopes could be made of liquid

Optical lens for Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Credit: Farrin Abbott / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The Hubble Space Telescope has a primary mirror of 2.4 meters. The Nancy Grace Roman telescope also has a mirror measuring 2.4 meters, and the James Webb space telescope has a huge 6.5 meter primary mirror. They get the work they’re designed to do, but what if … we could have even bigger mirrors?

The larger the mirror, the more light is collected there. This means that we can look further back in time with larger mirrors to observe star and galaxy formation, image exoplanets directly, and find out what dark matter is.

But the process of creating a mirror is involved and takes time. The mirror blank has been cast to get the basic shape. Then harden the glass by heating and slowly cooling. Grinding the glass and polishing to its perfect shape then comes followed by testing and coating of the lens. This is not so bad for smaller lenses, but we want bigger ones. Much bigger.

Enter the idea of ​​using liquids to create lenses in the room that are 10x-100x larger. And the time it would take to make them would be significantly less than a glass-based lens.

FLUTE, or Fluidic Telescope Experiment, is run by lead researcher Edward Balaban at the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Collaborators on the experiment include scientists at Ames at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, along with researchers from Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology.

Their goal is to make it possible to produce liquid lenses in space that are not only larger than their glass counterparts, but also as high quality or better optical as making a ground-based lens. And this can be done in a fraction of the time.

In space, liquids eventually form a perfectly spherical shape. To test the process first, however, they got closer to home and used water as a medium to create liquid lenses. They had to make sure that the water had the same density as the liquid polymers they used to make the lenses, so that the effects of gravity were effectively offset. Omitting any mechanical processes, the polymers were injected into circular frames immersed in water and then solidified, creating comparable or better lenses than using standard techniques.

The team then boarded two ZeroG satellite flights to test the process further. Synthetic oils with varying viscosities were tested to determine which would work better. These oils were pumped into circular frames the size of a dollar coin while the plane was in free fall, and again the scientists were able to make free-standing liquid lenses, even though the plane once began to lift again and the effects of gravity could be felt the liquids lost their shape.

This experiment will be performed on the ISS (International Space Station) next time and is already on board awaiting the arrival of Axiom-1 with mission specialist Eytan Stibbe scheduled to perform the experiment. There, they will add the step of using either UV light or temperature to cure the liquid so the lenses can be examined and tested by scientists back in Ames on Earth.

A successful experiment will be the first time an optical component is made in space. If successful, this will be the start of a new way of building telescopes, out in space. This would be a revolution in space-based manufacturing, and the time required to build one would be greatly reduced. And oh the sights we want to see.


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Citation: Giant space telescopes could be made of liquid (2022, April 11) retrieved April 12, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-04-giant-space-telescopes-liquid.html

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