2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Academy space telescope idea closer to reality

Published: May 20, 2014, 2:24 pm, by Tom Roeder

PrintExperiments started at the Air Force Academy a decade ago have grown into a Ball Aerospace project that could change how scientists look at the universe.

The Air Force Academy for years has been working on a plastic telescope lens called a photon sieve that parses light rays into a magnified image through a think plastic membrane. And a contract from the Defense Advance Research Project Agency drove development of a similar lens that’s nearly ready for use in space.

The plastic telescopes, built from nearly the same material as the plastic wrap in countless kitchens, are several times light than their glass cousins. That means relatively giant telescopes can be launched for less money than smaller the Hubble and Webb space telescopes now in use.

“Larger and larger aperture telescopes are needed to push the boundaries of astronomy,” explained Ball’s Makenzie Lystrup, who manages business development for space sciences at the Broomfield satellite builder.

Ball held a news conference on the technology Tuesday at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

The plastic lenses could be large enough to replicate a glass lens with a diameter of 120 feet.

That’s big enough to stare at planets circling neighboring stars, and possibly large enough to determine the composition of their atmospheres.

The plastic lenses aren’t perfect. While glass lenses can see light through the spectrum, plastic versions can see part of the light spectrum and require electronic correction to see in real colors.

Ball has made the concept work with a 1-meter test version on Earth. Under the DARPA contract, the firm also built hinged sections of a plastic telescope that could be launched.

The DARPA grant, though, paid for technology development but not a space vehicle to carry the concept to orbit.

For now, Ball is waiting for NASA or another space agency to buy the technology.

The company is also developing other ways the plastic membranes can be used.

Ideas include using the telescope as a receiver for laser imaging of Earth and using it to permit long-distance laser communications in space — like fiber optics without a cable.

Meanwhile, a small version of a membrane telescope is part of the academy”s cadet-built FalconSat-7, a miniature satellite which is being readied for a future launch.