CubeSats May Lead to Larger Space Telescopes
Kyle Maxey posted on January 17, 2019 |

Undoubtedly, space telescopes have been some of the most illuminating tools ever engineered. Over the past 30 years, off-world telescopes have imaged the formation of the Universe, the millions of galaxies beyond our own and, most recently, even detected planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system.

Since the detection of these “exo-planets” astronomers have become increasingly interested in determining whether these far-flung worlds harbor the conditions that would be conducive to the development of life.

Unfortunately, the current crop of space telescopes aren’t powerful enough to precisely detect the atmospheric composition of exo-planets, and to do so will require much larger and more complex telescopic optics. But building a larger telescope is difficult work. 

One of the most arduous aspects of building a telescope is creating the mirrors that are used to magnify objects light years away. In the last few decades, engineers have abandoned the notion that a telescope should be equipped with a single large mirror and have focused on developing segmented mirror designs.

As you can imagine, organizing a series of segmented mirrors to focus on a minute point, deep in space, can be taxing, and even the smallest error in alignment can undermine imaging results. 

To get around this issue, MIT engineers have proposed that CubeSats, armed with a guiding laser, be launched in concert with future telescopes as a method for accurately training a telescope’s array of mirrors.

According to the MIT plan, a CubeSat would be launched at a significantly safe distance from a space telescope and activate its laser to act as a focusing point for the telescope’s mirror. Using the CubeSat’s laser as a reference, the telescope’s mirrors could be aligned quickly and accurately while it tracked and imaged distant objects. 

Beyond increasing the accuracy of a future space telescope, having a relatively nearby, on-demand reference point could dramatically alter the way that space telescopes are designed. In fact, researchers believe that a CubeSat reference point might make it possible to develop telescopes that aren’t as rigid as their forebearers and have a “floppy” and expandable design making it easier to develop larger telescopes that can image the Universe’s most distant objects with uncanny resolution.

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