Carbon Nanotube Mirrors Developed for NASA CubeSat
Shane Laros posted on August 12, 2016 |
The CubeSat design has played host to numerous iterations over the few years it has been in service, from mesh communications to mapping ice on the moon.

Now researchers at NASA are using the tiny satellites as a testing bed for a new design of telescope mirror manufactured using carbon nanotubes.

John Kolasinski, Ted Kostiuk and Tilak Hewagama hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. (Image courtesy of NASA/W. Hrybyk.)
John Kolasinski, Ted Kostiuk and Tilak Hewagama hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. (Image courtesy of NASA/W. Hrybyk.)

By embedding carbon nanotubes in epoxy resin, the mirrors can maintain the unique properties of the submicron-sized material. Carbon nanotubes are extraordinarily strong and have unique electrical properties while also being efficient conductors of heat

“No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon nanotube resin,” said Peter Chen, a Goddard Space Flight Center contractor and president of Lightweight Telescopes, a company working with the team to create the CubeSat-compatible telescope.

“This is a unique technology currently available only at Goddard,” he added. “The technology is too new to fly in space and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement. But this is what my Goddard colleagues John Kolasinski, Ted Kostiuk and Tilak Hewagama are trying to accomplish through the CubeSat program.”

This new telescope will be particularly small and lightweight and less powerful than other space- or land-based telescopes; however, it will work as a proof of concept for larger applications. As the carbon nanotube mirror is made using a reusable mold or mandrel set to a particular optical prescription, it can be reused to create several identical mirrors, which could be applied to large, multisegmented telescope mirrors, such as the James Webb Space Telescope’s 21-foot primary mirror. Due to the method of production, the mirrors do not require polishing, a costly method used to ensure correct shape and smoothness.

Above and beyond these future applications is the carbon nanotube’s “smart optics” capability, in which actuators are built into the optics at the time of fabrication by applying an electric field to the resin mixture before it cures.

This causes the carbon nanotubes to align into chains and networks, and once the material has been cured, the shape of the optical surface of the mirror can be changed as power is applied to it. This concept has already been proven in laboratory settings in preparation of actual testing. “This technology can potentially enable very large-area technically active optics in space,” Chen said. “Applications address everything from astronomy and observing Earth to deep-space communications.”

This laboratory breadboard is being used to test the conceptual telescope for use on CubeSat missions. (Image courtesy of NASA/W. Hrybyk.)
This laboratory breadboard is being used to test the conceptual telescope for use on CubeSat missions. (Image courtesy of NASA/W. Hrybyk.)

While the CubeSat telescopes will likely not provide the immediate return of larger flagship missions conducted at Goddard, the tiny telescopes could be flown in a formation or enable smaller scientific experiments and investigations.

CubeSats have been primarily used by education institutions as learning tools for budding engineers, as well as a student’s early introduction into space flight. With NASA using them as development platforms for new technologies, it has taken a step to help extend humanity’s reach into space.

That’s a big deal for such a small satellite. Learn more about the newest CubeSat projects at the NASA mission pages.

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