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Robots to build massive modular telescopes in space

Thu 14 Jul 2016

Scientists are developing a new modular design which will allow extremely large telescopes to be assembled by robots in space, helping advance astronomers’ research into the Universe.

The robotically assembled space telescope (RAMST) is being designed by a team at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  In a paper published in the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments and Systems (JATIS), the scientists described the typical challenges associated with land-based telescopes, including atmospheric effects and fixed position limitations.

The team suggested that their approach to robotically assembled optic equipment could tackle these disadvantages, while also answering current concerns around volume and mass capacity of launching space-based technology. They explained that a modular, robotic approach would overcome these restrictions on volume and mass, with the telescope components launched separately.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 11.46.35Lead researcher, Nicolas Lee, noted: ‘Our goal is to address the principal technical challenges associated with such an architecture, so that future concept studies addressing a particular science driver can consider a robotically assembled telescope in their trade space.’

The principal components of RAMST include a modular mirror, a robot to assemble the structure and provide ongoing maintenance, as well as advanced metrology technology to support telescopic operations. Lee said that the telescope architecture would be scalable across a range of sizes, and would not be limited to any specific optical design.

According to Harley Thronson, senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the ability to assemble modular space telescopes has many other potential applications.

‘Astronomers using major ground-based telescopes are accustomed to many decades of operation, and the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated that this is possible in space if astronauts are available. A robotic system of assembly, upgrade, repair, and resupply offers the possibility of very long useful lifetimes of space telescopes of all kinds,’ he said.

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