One of our favorite things here at Apollo Mapping is keeping up with new science and space technology. It’s just such cool stuff! This month, we’re excited to share with you some amazing new technology that could revolutionize telescopes as we know them – i.e., low cost, foldable telescope mirrors!
Sebastian Rabien, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, is the designer of the novel telescope mirrors. His method details a new way to produce and shape large, high-quality telescope mirrors that are much thinner and lighter than any previously used in space. The mirrors are so thin they can be rolled up and stored, earning them the moniker, “membrane mirrors.”
As Rabien said in a statement, “Launching and deploying space telescopes is a complicated and costly procedure. This new approach – which is very different from typical mirror production and polishing procedures – could help solve weight and packaging issues for telescope mirrors, enabling much larger, and thus more sensitive, telescopes to be placed in orbit.”
Membrane mirrors are created by placing an evaporated chemical disposition on a rotating liquid inside a vacuum chamber. The resulting lightweight polymer membrane that forms, thin as cellophane, is then molded into a parabolic shape. Telescopes use parabolic mirrors because the shape allow rays of light to converge onto a single focal point regardless of where on the mirror they actually strike.
These lightweight, rollable mirrors could be the next step towards NASA’s goal of creating telescopes that can be assembled in space. As scientists and engineers look towards the future of telescope technology, they are quickly outgrowing the size and weight capabilities of rockets that currently exist. Creating telescope pieces, like membrane mirrors, that are light and portable would make them both easier to transport into space and simpler to assemble there if necessary.
Rabien believes his new method could, “make lightweight mirrors that are 15 or 20 meters [49 to 66 feet] in diameter a reality, enabling space-based telescopes that are orders of magnitude more sensitive than ones currently deployed or being planned.” For comparison, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is comprised of 18 folded hexagonal mirrors and measures 21.3 feet in diameter. Theoretically, larger mirrors would mean telescope imagery even more astounding than that of the JWST.
We’re avid followers about the JWST telescope here at Apollo and have written numerous articles about the Webb Telescope in the past (check them out here). We’re super excited about the vast possibilities membrane mirrors will bring to space imagery. If the jump from Hubble to Webb was breathtaking, we look forward to the next jump in imaging technology. We’ll wait with bated breath to see how this new technology is applied, and the reaches of the galaxy it may uncover.
If you want to learn more about membrane telescope mirrors, you can check out Rabien’s article in the Journal Applied Optics.