• Lia N. Rovira

Blueprints For Future Spacecraft Include Umbrellas And High-Tech Glitter

The Hubble Space Telescope turned twenty-eight this year, and we here at SkyFeed cannot thank it enough for its outstanding service. There aren’t many other telescopes that can claim to have revealed distant planets, and photographed the earliest known galaxies. However… it is beginning to show its age. Astronomers say the Hubble Space Telescope may have just three years of service left, so it’s time to start thinking about what’s next.

Now, I’ve already talked about NASA’s amazing infrared-sensing James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch early 2020. And I am very excited about that, and it’s going to be amazing.

But when it comes to space technology, new ideas are always welcome, no matter how crazy they sound.

Can you guess what sort of ideas astronomers and engineers have come up with lately? I bet you wouldn’t suggest umbrellas or glitter. And two of the ideas in planning stages right now involve the space-age versions of those things.

First, there’s the Aragoscope. Developed by scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder, it’s a high-resolution space telescope concept that might be able to capture images 1,000 times sharper than Hubble’s.

That extra resolution will mostly come from the telescope’s most unique feature, a giant sunshade. The design concept is named after François Arago, a French scientist who proved that light waves can actually bend around the edges of an opaque, circular disc, and refocus at a distant point. That point is called the Arago spot.

The Aragoscope’s disc would be pointed at an object we want to look at, like a distant star. That star’s light would then bend around the edges of the disc and create an Arago spot. The telescope, which would be tethered to the giant shade, would then use that spot to bring the target into focus.

The larger the disc, the more light it can capture, and the more detail the telescope can get. Ideally, we’d want the biggest possible disc for our future Aragoscope.

Super large versions of this disc might even manage to find things like the event horizon of a black hole!

The problem is that every piece of equipment that we send into space costs thousands of dollars to launch. So, getting a hundred-meter disc into space could cost a lot of coin. This is just the potential genius of the Aragoscope.

Its disc would be more like a light-weight parachute, so it could be tucked away during launch. Once it reached its destination, the parachute would unfurl to form the disc.

How exactly that would work has yet to be figured out, because as of now it’s only a concept. Just like our next telescope idea - glitter!

Actually, it’s called smart dust, and it’s made out of millions of tiny photo-polymers, which are light-sensitive plastic particles coated in reflective metal.

Basically: tiny floating mirrors.

This smart dust would be sprayed out from an aerosol container in space, and then controlled by lasers using what’s known as radiation pressure. Radiation pressure is the faint force that electromagnetic radiation exerts on objects, and when directed at very, very, small particles, it can be enough to push them around.

So by aiming lasers at particles of smart dust, astronomers could use radiation pressure to nudge them into position, and with enough bits of glitter, they could build huge mirrors in space.

Larger mirrors mean more light captured which means more detail. Because smart dust is so light, we could send lots of it into space, allowing us to build telescope-mirrors that are potentially thousands of kilometers or miles in diameter. Pretty cool.

But, like I said, it’s still just a concept. Researchers say we’re still twenty or thirty years away from seeing these ideas take shape in space. Glitter and space umbrellas - not just for David Bowie concerts anymore!

This story was originally published on Bang It Out on Science - head over there for more space exploration articles written by me! And be sure to follow my Instagram so you don't miss a thing.

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