NASA just greenlit a satellite concept straight out of Star Wars

1 May 2018

The self-assembling space telescope could be bigger than the James Webb Telescope (pictured) when it launches in the beginning of the next decade. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

How we get satellites into space is a costly and time-consuming business, but what if we could get the satellite to do the hard work itself?

SpaceX and other private space companies have promised to revolutionise the delivery of payloads into space by drastically cutting the costs and time in between launches with the latest in rocket and computer technology.

But now, NASA has just greenlighted a project from Cornell University that is truly mind-blowing: a satellite capable of being launched into space in tiny segments, which can then navigate autonomously to a point and self-assemble.

The idea is part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts programme and will be led by the university’s Prof Dmitry Savransky and a team of 15 other researchers in the programme’s first phase.

Mapping distant exoplanets

Savransky’s vision is to develop a self-assembling satellite capable of being used as a space telescope for the discovery and mapping of distant exoplanets.

Aside from being such a fascinating concept, the idea that it would be built in space is to allow for the construction of a telescope multiple times the size of anything in orbit today, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

This means that instead of having a telescope with primary mirrors – its key component – of between 2.4 and 6.5 metres, a self-assembling telescope could have a mirror in excess of 30 metres.

Concept space telescope schematics

A schematic showing one module (lower left) and what the finished telescope might look like, with approximately 1,000 modules assembled together. Image: Savransky et al/Cornell University

Savransky’s early design shows that each of the satellite’s modules would be hexagonal-shaped, measuring one metre across, each of which would be adjustable in the mirror’s assembly.

Hitching a ride aboard a NASA rocket, the individual components would be deployed in orbit before finding their own way to the destination point using a deployable solar sail.

During the space telescope’s assembly, it can be turned into a sunshield for added protection.

Finding a theoretical parking spot

Even the mission’s destination sounds fascinating as it will fall into a point known as Sun-Earth L2, a theoretical point in space where the combined gravitational forces of Earth and the sun equal the centrifugal force of the telescope itself.

This would essentially allow the space telescope to park itself in orbit around the Earth.

Speaking of the idea, Cornell’s associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and a former CTO at NASA, Mason Peck, thinks the idea is very interesting.

“If Prof Savransky proves the feasibility of creating a large space telescope from tiny pieces, he’ll change how we explore space,” he said. “We’ll be able to afford to see farther, and better than ever – maybe even to the surface of an extrasolar planet.”

With $125,000 in funding as part of the first phase, Savransky and his team will now spend the next few months developing the concept with the hope of being approved for the next phase.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic