Building and sending a telescope into space has its risks. There are a million and one things that can go wrong. Every single component has to be tested and then assembled, and then the whole telescope is tested again until it’s all good to go. Then it's strapped to a rocket full of liquid explosive and shot into space. Now NASA might have an alternative that is significantly less risky – a self-assembling telescope.
The idea is to send small inexpensive components as extra payloads of already scheduled launches over a period of months or even years. These will then navigate to where the telescope is supposed to be built and assemble into the preprogrammed design. The components will navigate using solar sails that will then become the sun-shield of the new instrument.
The project has been moved to Phase I of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. It was devised by Dmitry Savransky of Cornell University along with 15 other US-based scientists. NASA awarded the winners of the concept $125,000 to determine whether the project can actually be built as they proposed.
“That’s what the NIAC program is,” said Savransky in a statement. “You pitch these somewhat crazy-sounding ideas, but then try to back them up with a few initial calculations, and then it’s a 9-month project where you’re trying to answer feasibility questions.”
If these feasibility studies are successful the project will move into Phase II. The system would be formed from hexagonal modules, each about 1 meter (3.3 feet) across. Therefore, the proposed telescope will end up being more than 30 meters (98 feet) wide, bigger than any observatory we have currently placed in space or that we would launch in the near future. The James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2020, has a primary mirror that is 6.5 meters (21 feet) across.
“As autonomous spacecraft become more common and as we continue to improve how we build very small spacecraft, it makes a lot of sense to ask Savransky’s question," said Mason Peck, Cornell associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and former chief technology officer at NASA. "Is it possible to build a space telescope that can see farther, and better, using only inexpensive small components that self-assemble in orbit?”
Hopefully, the answer to this question will arrive soon.