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Some Assembly Required: Giant Next-Generation Space Telescopes Could Be Built Off Earth

The Hubble Space Telescope has been seen by astronauts during five space shuttle missions between 1993 and 2009. This two astronauts operate during the first mission, when the telescope’s mirror has been repaired and a new camera was set up\.

Credit: NASA

If it comes to telescopes, size matters\.

In order to continue learning new things astronomers are building better and larger observatories to gaze at the cosmos both from Earth and out of orbit. Engineers have started developing the technologies needed to construct the next generation of \space telescopes, but there’s only one problem.

Both concerning size and weight, both the astronomers and engineers are \planning for the near future will be outgrowing the abilities of the rockets that exist today\. That is because the abilities of a telescope depend mostly on its own aperture, or the diameter of its primary mirror. New”megarockets” like NASA’s Space Launch System might be large enough to get the next-generation space telescopes that NASA aims to launch in the 2030s, but if subsequent missions need to squeeze to the same-size rocket fairing, these missions may have to sacrifice some scientific possibility. [Giant Space Telescopes of the Future (Infographic)]

As opposed to constrain a telescope’s design to fit in the payload fairing of the biggest available rocket thereby placing a limit on the quantity of science its instruments can reunite — NASA scientists are trying to find new methods to get those heavy space telescopes into orbitby launching these piece by piece and assembling them in distance, either robotically or with the support of astronauts.

“Large telescopes offer you better angular resolution and greater spectral resolution, so the future should be attracting bigger telescopes,” Nick Siegler, the chief technologist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, said during a demonstration at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle at January. That higher resolution enables telescopes to view more of the universe, seeing clearer than ever before and more looking. It is going to also be particularly useful for finding and characterizing planets around the stars.

“Obviously,’big’ is relative, but the challenge moving forward would be exactly the same,” Siegler said. “You’ve got large structures that you’re attempting to fold into smaller constructions, and the amount of work that goes into that is actually quite enormous.” As an instance, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — now scheduled to start on an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket 2021 — will probably fold up to fit inside the rocket’s payload fairing. If telescope is about to deploy, more than 200 moving parts need to carefully unfold before the tool could get to work celebrating the skies.

JWST will be the largest space telescope ever launched, using its 6.5-meter (21.3 ft ) mirror. The Ariane 5 that will launch JWST is an heavy-lift rocket that’s typically utilized to launch satellites into Earth’s orbit. But, those rockets have also been utilized to establish interplanetary missions such as the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury that started last October. NASA scientists are currently working on proposals for its successor although the JWST has not yet established\. (Spoiler alert: They are even bigger than JWST!)

A diagram compares the relative sizes of the Origins Space Telescope mission concept and existing space telescopes. The diagram also shows the temperatures at which the different telescopes must operate.

A diagram compares the relative sizes of the Origins Space Telescope mission theory and existing space telescopes. The diagram shows the temperatures where the telescopes must operate\.

Credit: NASA GSFC

NASA engineers working on the blueprints for proposed area observatories like the huge UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) and the Origins Space Telescope (OST) have had to deal with the limitations of the rockets. For every one of these two telescopes, the engineers came up with 2 different design options: a 15-m (50 ft ) variant that may establish on NASA’s upcoming Space Launch Method (SLS) and also an 8-m (26 feet) version that may launch on today’s smaller and not as powerful heavy-lift rockets. Those smaller variations are NASA’s backup plans in case the SLS won’t be prepared at the time; the megarocket has faced extensive delays and cost overruns.

Astronauts vs. robots

Rather than waiting for somebody to construct a rocket big enough to encourage the sorts of space telescopes that scientists expect to start later on, a group of NASA researchers is studying the options of in-space assembly. That procedure wouldn’t only eliminate the barriers connected with rocket size, but could also decrease the expense of developing and launching new space telescopes, stated a description of that the”in-Space Assembled Telescope” (iSAT) study.

Figuring out just how to construct a telescope in space is merely the beginning. NASA will need to show that the procedure is not merely possible, but and not overly risky to create telescope meeting a simple fact\. Those factors largely depend on whether the meeting is going to be carried out by astronauts, bots or some mix of the two, members of the iSAT team clarified in the AAS meeting. 

Sending astronauts to operate to a space telescope is not a new notion; NASA’s legendary Hubble Space Telescope, which started 1990, has been serviced by astronauts five times between 1993 and 2009. Even though the astronauts did not originally build Hubble, they did put in some new equipment and conduct several significant fixes\. Astronauts because the last Hubble servicing mission have not visited any space telescopes.

While the area shuttles that flew to the Hubble servicing missions are retired because 2011, NASA could send astronauts in the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. That lunar space station that is suggested could serve as a stepping stone for future missions to Mars.

However, some researchers, for example Siegler, believe that robots are for building stuff in space better. “Astronauts are costly,” he said. “We think we could do this entirely robotically.” A robotic system for constructing in-space telescope assembly would work a good deal like the robotic arms at the International Space Station, he explained.

\In this summer, the iSAT group aims to publish the findings of its study on different choices for in-space assembly\.

Email Hanneke Weitering in hweitering@space.com or follow @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and forth Facebook. Initial post on Space.com.

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