NASA’s floating telescope could be 100 times larger than Webb’s

NASA’s giant new James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever launched into space, but the agency is already looking to the future. The possibility of creating floating lenses to create a giant telescope that is perhaps 100 times larger than Webb’s is currently being explored.

In a new article on its website, NASA writes that new methods and liquid materials for the construction of giant telescopes are being explored.

“When it comes to binoculars, the bigger the better,” the agency writes. “Larger telescopes collect more light and allow astronomers to look further into space and see distant objects in detail.

“What if there was a way to make binoculars 10 times – or even 100 times – bigger than before? “What started as a theoretical question is now a series of experiments to see if liquids can be used to make micro-gravity lenses.”

Attempts to create liquid lenses in space

The experiments are currently being stored at the ISS US National Labin, United States Orbital Segment (USOS) at the International Space Station (ISS), where they are awaiting the arrival of the astronauts aboard Axiom Mission 1, a private cruise mission scheduled to be launched. four to the ISS for an eight-day stay.

The Israeli private astronaut Eytan Stibbe, expert 2 in the crew, will carry out the experiments as part of his research collection.

While liquids may be less useful as Earth’s gravity lenses, they are great for focusing light on gravity.

“All liquids have an elastic force that holds them together at their surface,” says NASA. “This force is called surface tension. This is what allows some insects to slide over water without sinking and gives its water droplets its shape. On Earth, when water droplets are small enough (2 mm or less), the surface tension overcomes gravity and they remain perfectly spherical. If a drop grows much larger, it will be trampled by its own weight.

“But in space, water and other liquids (after oscillating) eventually take on a perfect spherical shape.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg watches a bubble of water float freely between her and the camera and shows her picture broken in the drop. Image from NASA.

Stibbe’s experiments will examine whether it will be possible to create high-precision lenses and mirrors in space using fluids.

“We thought, why not take advantage of the way liquids behave naturally in gravity and use it to make large telescopes or space-made visual components that can have all kinds of uses,” said Edward Balaban, the study’s lead researcher. Fluidic Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “In gravity, liquids take on shapes that are useful for creating lenses and mirrors, so if we do them in space, they could be used to make telescopes that are significantly larger than previously thought possible.

Successful previous tests on Earth

Scientists previously tested the concept of floating lenses on Earth by simulating a weightless environment with water.

“By injecting solidifying liquid into a circular frame submerged in water, we were able to literally make lenses in the janitor’s bucket,” says Dr. Valeri Frumkin from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology at NASA. “Polymers, which are also used in nail salons to create acrylic nails or in adhesives such as superglue, are a natural choice for lens materials.

“The belts are making sure that the water has exactly the same density as the polymer we are injecting so that the buoyancy forces are exactly against the force of gravity to mimic weightlessness.

The solid lenses made with liquids in this way proved to have an “excellent” surface quality that compares or even beats what can be made with the best polishing methods available in the production of optical lenses. What’s more, they only needed a fraction of the time to create compared to traditional lenses.

“This method allows us to completely skip all mechanical processes such as grinding or polishing,” says Morion Bercovici, a professor of mechanical engineering. “The natural physics of fluid simply works for us.

After successful experiments on the ground, the scientists also tested their experiment in simulating gravity in ZeroG paragliding. They successfully created liquid lenses of the desired type, but moments before the aircraft stopped diving and gravity destroyed the lenses.

MOVE scientists create an instant floating lens in zero-gravity flight. Photo by Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

Opening the door to giant space telescopes

When experimenting with permanent gravity on board the International Space Station, Stibbe will add additional steps to cure the fluid in a lens that retains its shape. Once the lenses have been created with liquid polymers and hardened with either UV light or temperature, they will be sent back to Earth for analysis by NASA scientists in Ames.

“We expect this approach to create a perfectly shaped and smooth surface: the best surfaces to transform into mirrors,” said FLUTE scientist Vivek Dwivedi at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“If our stop attempt is successful, it will be the first time a visual component is made in space,” says Balaban. “It’s a bit like making a story.

If all goes well, the liquid carried in many space travel could be combined to create giant space telescopes that might otherwise be too large to shoot them off the ground.

A description of what a future “floating lens” space telescope might look like. Photo from NASA / Studio Ella Maru.

The James Webb Space Telescope aims to capture the highest quality images of space telescopes that humans have ever seen, but it could one day be replaced by “floating lens” telescopes that are 100 times larger that capture space images we can only dream of today.

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