Space

Lensless space telescope could be 1,000 times stronger than Hubble

Lensless space telescope could...
Artist's concept of the Aragoscope deployed
Artist's concept of the Aragoscope deployed
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Artist's concept of the Aragoscope deployed
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Artist's concept of the Aragoscope deployed

The Hubble space telescope has given us decades of incredible images, but it's reaching the end of its service life and the question is, what will come after? One possibility is the Aragoscope from the University of Colorado Boulder, which uses a gigantic orbital disk instead of a mirror to produce images 1,000 times sharper than the Hubble's best efforts.

The Aragoscope is named after French scientist Francois Arago who first noticed how a disk diffracted light waves. The principle is based on using a large disk as a diffraction lens, which bends light from distant objects around the edge of the disk and focuses it like a conventional refraction lens. The phenomenon isn't very pronounced on the small scale, but if the telescope is extremely large, it not only becomes practical, but also extremely powerful.

When deployed the Aragoscope will consist of an opaque disk a half mile in diameter parked in geostationary orbit behind which is an orbiting telescope keeping station some tens to hundreds of miles behind that collects the light at the focal point and rectifies it into a high-resolution image.

"The opaque disk of the Aragoscope works in a similar way to a basic lens," says CU-Boulder doctoral student and team member Anthony Harness. "The light diffracted around the edge of the circular disk travels the same path length to the center and comes into focus as an image." He added that, since image resolution increases with telescope diameter, being able to launch such a large, yet lightweight disk would allow astronomers to achieve higher-resolution images than with smaller, traditional space telescopes.

The Aragoscope is similar to the starshade being developed for NASA, which uses the same telescope and giant floating disk architecture. But where starshade uses the disk to create artificial stellar eclipses to aid planet hunting, the Aragoscope turns the disk into a gigantic diffraction lens. According to the team, the similarity is no coincidence, since starshade was developed by members of the Aragoscope team.

The new orbital telescope was selected last June by NASA as one of 12 proposals for its NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program – each of which received US$100,000 to fund nine-months of research for projects ranging from capturing asteroids to sending submarines to the lakes of Titan. The Aragoscope is now up for being one of six projects that will receive an additional US$500,000 in April.

The team sees the Aragoscope as a way to penetrate farther into the universe to observe phenomena like black hole event horizons, or turned on the Earth to pick out objects the size of a rabbit. The next phase of the project involves testing the concept. This will involve laboratory work using a one-meter disk set several meters from a telescope. If this is successful, a more dramatic demonstration will use a disk set on a mountain top while a telescope mounted on a helicopter tries to focus on the star Alpha Centauri.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder

19 comments
Loving It All
This sounds very cool, but I notice there is no mention of expected cost. Another concern is, given this thing will be a half mile in diameter, how susceptible will it be to being struck by meteors, space debris, etc., and how resilient to damage will it be?
Captain Obvious
This will be a very thin, flimsy "lens", so anything that hits it will leave a hole but pass right through without destroying it. Like a bullet through a target, except 1 KM wide. And very light, probably like aluminum foil. I just want to know how they're going to steer it, and focus it.
wmarsh
It seems like a drone carrying a telescope might be a better platform than a helicopter to focus on Alpha Centauri.
William H Lanteigne
Being half-mile wide it's going to be affected by tidal forces which will either pull it apart, or cause it to spin (the part closest to Earth will have a faster orbital velocity than the part farther away).
Joseph Mertens
Ok now what about the solar wind in space? At a half mile in diameter that is a huge sail.
Anne Ominous
What puzzles me is why it is a complete opaque disk. The same edge effect should be there even if it's just a ring. So why let all that light in the middle go to waste? Reduce the mass by eliminating most of the material on the inside, and combine the Aragoscope with a more conventional telescope.
Hugh Simons
Isn't this just a giant Fresnel zone plate? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_plate
Paul Smith
Any light coming through the center would be unfocused and would interfere with the focused edge light. These very thin foil sheets (I assume it will be similar to a solar sail) have very low mass should be minimally affected by gravitational forces, by which I suppose you mean the moon.
MarkmBha
Great idea. One question: Submarines on Titan... WHAT?
mik
Why not just use the moon as the disc. Being a sphere it will always be in focus-able on wherever one wants by just moving the receiver satellite. It would also be bigger than the 150km disc, and thus be more powerful.