Scientists to Develop Self-Assembling Space Telescope for NASA

A team of researchers will be developing a modular space telescope for NASA's 2018 NIAC (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts) program. This modular space telescope, nearly 100 feet across, will be composed of individual units launched as ancillary payloads on space missions over a number of years. The units will navigate autonomously to a pre-determined point in space and self-assemble.

Dmitry Savransky, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and 15 other scientists from across the U.S. have been asked to give NASA this telescope for Phase I of its 2018 NIAC (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts) program. In NIAC program, researchers pitch these somewhat crazy-sounding ideas, but then try to back them up with a few initial calculations, and then answer feasibility questions.

Phase I concepts cover a wide range of innovations selected for their potential to revolutionize future space exploration. Phase I awards, announced March 30, are valued at approximately $125,000 over nine months to support each scientist’s initial definition and analysis of concepts. If these feasibility studies are successful, award recipients can apply for Phase II awards.

Savransky’s vision for his self-assembling space telescope is all about seeing deep into space to discover new extra-solar planets – planets outside our solar system, also known as exoplanets – and map the surfaces of those we’ve already seen.

This proposal, Savransky stated in his proposal, is in line with NASA priorities. Self-assembly provides a path, he believes, to the construction of a space telescope the size of which would be infeasible using current design and assembly techniques, such as those for the Hubble and James Webb (launching in 2020) telescopes. Those telescopes have primary mirrors, the instrument’s “eyes,” of 2.4 meters and 6.5 meters, respectively; Savransky’s would have a mirror in excess of 30 meters.

He readily admits that constructing a large-aperture telescope is “really hard” to do.

His idea involves programming thousands of individual hexagon-shaped modules, each 1 meter across and topped with an edge-to-edge active (adjustable) mirror assembly. These would form the primary and secondary mirrors.

Launched as “payloads of opportunity” – hitching a ride on a NASA rocket – they would navigate to their destination using a deployable solar sail, which would then become a sunshield during telescope assembly.

Their destination is known as the Sun-Earth L2, or second Lagrange, point – a theoretical point in space where the combined gravitational forces of two large bodies (in this case, the sun and the Earth) equal the centrifugal force felt by a much smaller third body (the telescope). The interaction of the forces creates a point of equilibrium where a spacecraft or observatory can “park.”

Savransky is looking forward to the NIAC Orientation Meeting, June 5-6 in Washington, D.C., where he will get to meet with the other Phase I winners and talk about their ideas, which include a shape-shifting moon rover, a wing-flapping Mars explorer and a steam-powered autonomous ocean robot.