Following news that NASA canceled the Resource Prospector mission, the U.S. space agency reportedly funded a project to develop a self-assembling telescope to be used in space.
According to reports, NASA has funded the project of Dmitry Savransky, a scientist from Cornell University, who proposed the concept of a self-assembling telescope. The modular telescope will have the capability to build itself in space from individual units or a swarm of smaller parts.
Should the project succeed, it will become a less-risky and less-expensive alternative to current space telescopes that require a orbital launch to be installed or repaired. The primary idea behind the concept is to send the small, inexpensive components of the telescope as additional payloads on scheduled launches over a period of months or years.
The parts will then navigate to the supposed location of the telescope and begin assembling into its preprogrammed design. The components will use solar sails to move in space and will eventually use them as sunshield for the new instrument.
“Modules will be launched independently as payloads of opportunity, and navigate to the Sun-Earth L2 point using a deployable solar sail,” NASA said in a statement. “The solar sails will then become the planar telescope sunshield during telescope assembly, which will proceed autonomously with no additional human or robotic intervention.”
The project has already made it to Phase I of NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) initiative. The team of 15 scientists led by Savransky will now have to prove that their self-assembling telescope concept will work using the $125,000 USD funding they received from NASA.
“That’s what the NIAC program is,” Savransky was quoted as saying 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 nine-month project where you’re trying to answer feasibility questions.”
If the Phase I feasibility study succeeds, the project will move to Phase II. The proposed telescope will be more than 30 meters wide, bigger than any observation instrument we currently have in space.
“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,” Mason Peck, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University and former chief technology officer at NASA, said.
“Is it possible to build a space telescope that can see farther, and better, using only inexpensive small components that self-assemble in orbit?”