If asked to think of a telescope, most people will picture a long tube with a lens at either end. But a new experimental optical instrument developed by Lockheed Martin could usher in ultra-thin devices that weigh 90 percent less than typical telescopes while providing equivalent resolution. The first images captured by the Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-Optical Reconnaissance (SPIDER) have now been revealed.

Lockheed Martin today released the first images from its new telechnology that promises to shrink telescopes by 90 percent. The ultra-thin Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-Optical Reconnaissance (SPIDER) telescope has the same resolution as an instrument ten times its size and promises new flat optical sensors for UAVs and other applications.

SPIDER was originally developed for DARPA by Lockheed's research partners at the University of California, Davis, and independently advanced by Lockheed at its Advanced Technology Center (ATC). Unlike conventional telescopes, which rely on lenses or mirrors, SPIDER replaces the primary lens with a thin array of tiny, insect-like lenses. Each of these lenses feeds light to a silicon-chip photonic integrated circuit (PIC), so the telescope is essentially a bank of still cameras.

These images are combined using the principle of interferometry. This is where the light waves from the array images interferes with one another, and by analyzing the amplitude and phase of the interference patterns, a processor can generate a new image of much higher resolution.

SPIDER’s first results shown here, with the two image targets. The left of each pair is the original and the image reconstructions using SPIDER is on the right(Credit: Lockheed Martin)

This technology allows for ultra-thin, flat telescopes with arrays of photonic sensors. For the released images, Lockheed created an array of 30 lenses that are each less than a millimeter wide. These were placed in an optical system using a 4-ft (1.2-m) mirror assembly to simulate a distance of 280 mi (450 km) when capturing images of two test targets: a standard bar test pattern and an overhead view of a complex railway yard.

Lockheed says that when the technology is mature it could be used to make space telescopes as efficient as conventional ones, but will allow for a significant reduction in payload weight. In addition, it can be used on aircraft, drones, and cars, where the sensors can be installed flush under wings or in radiator grilles.

The next phase of development will concentrate on assembling a larger instruments with higher resolution and wider fields of view.

"This is generation-after-next capability we're building from the ground up," says Scott Fouse, ATC vice president. "Our goal is to replicate the same performance of a space telescope in an instrument that is about an inch thick. That's never been done before. We're on our way to make space imaging a low-cost capability so our customers can see more, explore more and learn more."

The findings were presented at the Pacific Rim Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics in Singapore.

The video below discusses the SPIDER project.

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