space telescope

Lockheed Martin’s experimental optical instrument shrinks space telescopes by 90 per cent

Lockheed Martin has developed a an experimental prototype of an ultra-thin optical instrument which could allow space telescopes to be shrunk in size considerably in the future, allowing for lighter loads to be sent into space.

The new instrument should make it possible to lower the weight of space telescopes by up to 90 per cent while maintaining the same resolution and image quality.

Dubbed the Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-Optical Reconnaissance (SPIDER), the new device could allow for more hosted payloads or smaller spacecraft when sending optical satellites into orbit.

More broadly, the sensor technology has applications for aircraft and other vehicles - anywhere that depends on small optical sensors.

The future could see drones with imagers laid flat underneath their wings and cars could have imaging sensors that are flush against their grills.

“This is generation-after-next capability we’re building from the ground up,” said Scott Fouse, vice president of Lockheeds’ Advanced Technology Center.

“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 system uses tiny lenses to feed optical data divided and recombined in a photonic integrated circuit (PIC), which was originally designed for telecommunications at the University of California, Davis.

Using these chips in a different way, Lockheed researchers unlocked new potential for ultra-thin telescopes using a technique called interferometric imaging.

The tests involved a PIC aligned to a series of 30 lenses, each smaller than a millimetre across. An optical system simulated the distance from space to the ground, where scenes were illuminated and rotated. The first image included a standard bar test pattern, and the second image showed the overhead view of a complex rail yard.

The lenses and PIC comprise one section of a full instrument to be assembled in the next project phase. The team plans to increase the resolution and field of view in future phases.

Last month, it was revealed that future satellites could be fitted with sails designed to slow down their orbit when they are retired from service in order to force them to burn up in the atmosphere rather than adding to the Earth’s growing space junk problem. 

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